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Law School Case Brief

Baker v. Libbie - 210 Mass. 599, 97 N.E. 109 (1912)

Rule:

The author of any letter or letters, whether they are literary compositions, or familiar letters, or letters of business, possess the sole and exclusive copyright therein; and that no persons, neither those to whom they are addressed, nor other persons, have any right or authority, to publish the same upon their own account, or for their own benefit. Even the publication of private letters by the person to whom they are addressed, may be enjoined. This is done upon the ground that the writer has a right of property in his letters, and that they can only be used by the receiver for the purpose for which they were written. The writer of even private letters of no literary value has such a proprietary interest as required a court of equity at his instance to prohibit their publication by the receiver. The recipient of a private letter, sent without any reservation, express or implied held the general property, qualified only by the incidental right in the author to publish and prevent publication by the recipient, or any other person. A court of equity will protect the right of property in such private letters, by enjoining their unauthorized publication. 

Facts:

The executor sought to enjoin the publication of letters from the administratrix who was the founder of "Christian Science" to keep defendant auctioneers from printing, publishing, selling, or circulating letters written by the administratrix. The letters did not possess the qualities of literature and were written to a cousin about domestic and business affairs, referring to household matters.

Issue:

Should the Court grant the injunction?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The court ordered that an injunction against publication or multiplication in any way of the letters written by the administratrix to prevent the auctioneers from publishing letters. The court found that in the absence of some special limitation imposed either by the subject matter of the letter or the circumstances under which it was sent, the right in the receiver of an ordinary letter was one of unqualified title in the material on which it is written. He could deal with it as absolute owner subject only to the proprietary right retained by the author for himself and his representatives to the publication or non-publication of idea in its particular verbal expression.

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