Is it copyright infringement to post a lawyer’s cease-and-desist letter?

The University of Queensland (Australia) seems to think so; its letter to blogger Brandon Shollenberger (Izuru) states, among other things,

The University of Queensland owns the copyright in this letter and you are advised that any publication by you of this letter, or persons acting in concert with you, will constitute an infringement of The University’s copyright. The University of Queensland reserves its right to take any and all legal action against any person, including you, who publishes this letter.

Shollenberger has indeed published the letter, in the process of responding to it (see also here). Is posting cease-and-desist letters in such a situation indeed copyright infringement? I can’t speak to Australian law on this, but here is my view of American law, which I first blogged about in 2008:

A. Letters are indeed presumptively protected by copyright. Generally speaking, pretty much anything that’s at all original (not necessarily innovative, but just the author’s own writing) and longer than several words is indeed copyrighted the moment it’s written down.

B. But this presumption can be rebutted if the person copying the work shows (among other things) that his use is a “fair use” of the work. Here’s a quick run-through of the four fair use factors, and how they apply to such uses of cease-and-desist letters:

1a. The purpose of the use: Quoting a letter in the process of critiquing its arguments constitutes criticism of the original, which cuts in favor of fair use; the more detailed the criticism, the better for the user.

1b. The purpose of the use: If the site that posts the letter makes some money (e.g., through advertising or even a tip jar), then this cuts in some measure against fair use — but it doesn’t cut that much against the fair use when the use is critical, since criticism even in commercially distributed works (such as newspapers or books) is generally a favored use.

2a. The nature of the copied work: A cease-and-desist letter is generally not creative (the way a work of fiction might be creative), which cuts in favor of fair use.

2b. The nature of the copied work: The letter is generally unpublished by the author, which cuts against fair use.

3. The amount of the work taken: Posting a letter constitutes posting of an entire work, which may cut against fair use; but the court may conclude that the critical nature of the posting requires copying the entire work (so that the reader can evaluate the criticism based on all the facts), in which case this factor may be neutral.

4. The effect on the market for the work: This factor, which is especially important, cuts in favor of fair use for cease-and-desist letters, since there is generally no market as such for letters, and it’s unlikely that there’d be a licensing market for the letters (since few people would license the use of the letter to a critic). Any harm to the copyright owner stems from the critical nature of the posting, and not from the poster’s competing with the author in the nastygram market.

If it weren’t for the unpublished nature of the letter, the Supreme Court’s Campbell v. Acuff-Rose (1994) decision, on which I rely in my quick analysis above, would copying of cease-and-desist letters almost open-and-shut fair use. The unpublished nature of the work undermines that in some measure (see, e.g., Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises (1985)); but I still think a copier’s fair use argument in such a situation is quite strong.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Eugene Volokh | May 19