David Strom

Who Owns Your Email?

By David Strom

Do you think about who owns your email messages and what they can do with them? Probably

not all the time, and probably only after you send a message in a fit of pique that you would

rather not have. But it is an especially sticky issue for corporations, and getting stickier by the

day as more of it accumulates.

It is not a clear-cut question, as I found out lately when I started digging into this issue after

hearing about the various legal ramifications at a recent Electronic Messaging Association

conference. What got me started was a column by Penn Jillette for PC/Computing about some of

the reporters who managed to read Tonya Harding's email messages on the Lillehammer

Olympics computing system that both press and players were connected to.  Actually, they didn't

read any messages, according to Penn: they just hacked her password and logged in to see that

she had a bunch of waiting messages in her inbox.

There are two issues here that need further clarification: who owns your email, and what

constitutes covert (or illegal) viewing? 

If, as a journalist, I look in your mailbox and see that you've gotten your monthly porn mag and

write a story about how you subscribe to smut, have I done anything wrong? Legally, I don't

think so: I didn't open or tamper with your mail.  When you come home from work, your

magazine is still in your mailbox, waiting for your viewing pleasure. Ethically, I might not be

able to look myself in the mirror the next day.

Let's take a different tack for a moment. Suppose I send you a letter talking about how awful I've

been treated by a third party.  Who owns that letter? In Penn's column, he thinks it should be you,

the recipient, who owns this information. However, several lawyers indicate it is the sender who

retains all copyright to that material, even while the recipient retains control over the actual

physical letter itself.  This means that you can't publish my words without my consent, if the

copyright laws hold. In order for information to be copyrighted, it has to exist in tangible form,

according to my legal advisors. Is email tangible enough? I can't be sure.

But let's assume that it is covered. Who is the actual "owner" anyway? It could be the creator, if

the creator uses an email system that he or she owns. Or it could be the creator's corporation,

which is the most likely owner of any email system in use if we use who pays for the email

system as indication of ownership.  That puts a different spin on things when it comes to looking

at Tonya's inbox: since it isn't her inbox, it is the Olympics Committee's.  

This was the result of a celebrated case involving some employees of Epson who were fired a

few years ago over the content of their email messages. Some of you may be uncomfortable with

the legal right of your boss (or some clerk in accounting) having the right to read your email. I

certainly am. 

So where do journalists come in? You got me: I don't like reading anyone else's email, to be sure. 

But now we've gone from dealing with ownership to examining privacy issues.  This is still

pretty difficult to pin down. As you all know, it is easy to hit the "forward" button in your

favorite email package and in a few keystrokes, off my message goes to someone that maybe I've

never met and certainly didn't give you any permission to do so. 

Common courtesy (and various email experts, including "The Elements of E-mail style," a

guidebook by David Angell and Brent Heslop) says for you to ask permission before you

forward my message, but we all can remember times that we sent mail without asking. So we are

now talking about "netettiquette" or rules of thumb: A fuzzy area, to be sure.  

Does your corporation have an explict policy covering these gray areas? If not, now might be the

time to get something done about it, before someone tries to read your own messages. Or worse

yet, before you get sued.

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David Strom David Strom Port Washington, NY 11050 USA US TEL: 1 (516) 944-3407