Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Don't copy this (and don't copy my cease and desist letter, either)!

Dear Rich: I have a question. I got a cease and desist letter from a law firm and I'd like to post it on my website so the world can see what a jerk this guy is. Is that legal? I'm so glad you asked. Publishing cease and desist letters on the Internet is not uncommon and there are even searchable C&D databases (in case you need help writing one). Lawyers rarely object to the practice either because they don't want more attention, or because they're aware that they're on tenuous first amendment or fair use grounds. However, some lawyers throw caution to the wind and plunge ahead with attempts to stop republication of their C&D letters. (You can read this lawyer's original cease and desist letter (.pdf) and a well-reasoned response to it by Public Citizen (.pdf).) If faced with an overly assertive law firm, keep the following in mind:

1. Getting a certificate of copyright registration for a cease and desist letter is not very hard. The hurdles for federal registration are fairly low and a cease and desist letter may meet those standards.

2. Enforcing copyright in C&D letters is difficult because of the merger doctrine. Copyright law will not protect a work if there are a limited number of ways of expressing the underlying idea. (And how many ways are there to say cease and desist?)

3. Reproduction of letters may be permitted under fair use principles. Infringing activity is often permitted for the sake of commentary and/or criticism.

Anyway, I certainly hope nobody puts a chill on republication of C&D letters. They are a great source of amusement and sometimes a matter of national security. And, for lawyers like me, it's often the only way to get published.