Correspondence: Privacy? Confidentiality? Ownership?

Elizabeth Shown Mills


John and June are colleagues in a professional field but work independently of each other. John writes or emails June, asking her thoughts on a matter. June responds. John then publishes June’s response on the Internet.

Is there a problem?

In this case, June protested. John countered that U.S. case law gives ownership to the recipient of a letter, not to the writer.

Yes and no.

Two separate issues are involved here—issues every researcher should be aware of: source vs. content. 

Actually, researchers who follow EE and the Evidence Analysis Process Model at its flyleaf already know the line that needs to be drawn between a source (a container of information) and the content that source contains. 

In terms of "ownership" these two issues become Ownership of physical item vs. Ownership of intellectual content. More specifically:

  • A letter sent from Person A to Person B becomes the physical property of the recipient. He owns the physical object.    
  • The copyright on the content—including the distribution rights for that content—is owned by the person who did the writing. The recipient cannot distribute or publish the content without the writer’s permission.

So what about paraphrasing?  Can John paraphrase what June said to him in that private letter and tell the world that her opinion on Subject ABC is XYZ?  That, of course, introduces the issue of ethics. It’s also a simple issue to resolve. Just ask.

As in all other areas of life, we cannot assume that we can use, in any way we wish, someone else’s work or thoughts.  Indeed, as in all other aspects of life, we should never assume. Period.

Just ask. Double-check. Confirm.


USEFUL READING: Mark Fowler, “Sixteen Things Writers Should Know about Quoting From Letters,” blog post, Rights of Writers ( : posted 4 February 2011).

IMAGE CREDIT: “Plugged into Email,” Presenter Media ( : accessed 9 August 2015), item 1916; used under license.

HOW TO CITE: Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Correspondence: Privacy? Confidentiality? Ownership," blog post, QuickTips: The Blog @ Evidence Explained ( : posted 9 August 2015).