Copyright Compendium

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718 Letters, Email, and Other Written Correspondence

 

718 Letters, Email, and Other Written Correspondence

 

Letters, emails, journals, diaries, and other forms of written correspondence may be registered if they contain a sufficient amount of copyrightable expression and if the claimant owns the copyright in that material.

 

When submitting an application to register these types of works, the applicant should limit the claim to the text, artwork, and/or photographs that appear in the work, the applicant should provide the name of the author who created that material, and the applicant should provide the name of the claimant who owns the copyright in that material. The Literary Division may accept a claim in “text” if the work contains a sufficient amount of written expression, or a claim in “artwork” and/or “photograph(s)” if the work contains a sufficient amount of pictorial or graphic expression. When completing an online application, this information should be provided in the Author Created field, and if applicable, also in the New Material Included field. When completing a paper application on Form TX, this information should be provided in space 2, and if applicable, also in space 6 (B). For guidance on completing these portions of the application, see Chapter 600, Sections 618.4 and 621.8.

 

As a general rule, the author of the correspondence–not the recipient–should be named as the copyright claimant. The fact that a person owns or possesses the original copy of a letter, a journal, diary, or other material object does not give that person the right to claim copyright in that work, even if the material object was purchased or found. Ownership of the copyright in a work, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, is distinct from the ownership of any material object in which the work has been fixed. A transfer of ownership involving a material object does not convey any rights in the copyrighted work, nor does the transfer of ownership of a copyright convey any property rights in any material object (absent a written agreement to that effect). 17 U.S.C. § 202.

 

A party that has obtained all of the rights under copyright that initially belonged to the author may be named as the copyright claimant for a letter, email, journal, diary, or other written correspondence. When completing the application, the applicant should provide a brief transfer statement explaining how the claimant obtained the copyright in the work. For example, the registration specialist may accept an application if the applicant states that the claimant obtained the copyright “by inheritance” or “by written agreement,” but the specialist will question an application if the applicant simply states “I found this diary in the attic,” “my mother gave me this journal,” “my boyfriend sent me these love letters,” or the like. These types of statements suggest that the claimant may own a material object (i.e., a journal, a diary, a letter), but it is unclear whether the claimant owns the copyright in the work that is embodied in those objects. For guidance on identifying the copyright claimant, see Chapter 600, Section 619. For guidance on providing a transfer statement, see Chapter 600, Section 620.

 

In some cases, journals, diaries, letters, or other written correspondence may be published with new material that introduces, illustrates, or explains the work, such as forewords, afterwords, footnotes, annotations, or the like. As discussed in Section 709.4, this type of material may be registered as a derivative work if it contains a sufficient amount of original authorship. See 17 U.S.C. § 101 (definition of “derivative work”). The applicant should limit the claim to the new text that the author contributed to the work, the applicant should provide the name of the author who created the new text, together with the name of the claimant who owns the copyright in the new text. Applicants should use the terms “new text,” “text of introduction,” or the like to describe this type of authorship, rather than “text” or “editing.” If the new material contains an appreciable amount of pictorial or graphic expression, applicants should use the term “artwork” and/or “photograph(s)” to describe this type of authorship. In all cases, the journal, diary, letters, or other written correspondence should be excluded from the claim if that material has been previously published, previously registered, if it is in the public domain, or if the copyright in that material is owned by another party. For a discussion of the procedure for excluding this type of material from a claim, see Chapter 600, Section 621.8.