Can Sony Prevent the Media from Publishing Hacked Emails? Probably Not.

Sony Pictures Entertainment Lot Entrance

Sony is desperately trying to put a lid on the embarrassing emails that were hacked recently (though most of the damage has probably been done). Through its lawyers, the company sent a letter to various media outlets telling them they are not allowed to publish any of the documents or information, including emails, stolen in the hack. The entertainment giant is threatening lawsuits if the media doesn’t comply.

But does Sony have a case or are these just empty threats?

The short answer: they are empty threats.  Most of the stuff the media is reporting, which involves short excerpts of business emails to and from Sony executives, is probably legally acceptable to publish, according to experts. Why? Our good friend, the 1st amendment.

How does the 1st amendment give the media the right to publish Sony’s hacked emails?

In general, publishing the private communications of a business without its consent could violate several laws, including privacy laws, “trade secrets” protections, and others. However, the 1st amendment provides an exception to these laws if the information is “newsworthy” or a “matter of public concern.” While you may or may not agree that some bitchy comments a Sony exec makes about Angie are sufficiently newsworthy, the fact is that they reveal insights into how this large, culturally significant company operates. Also, courts generally accept what the established media determine to be newsworthy.

It doesn’t matter that the emails were originally obtained illegally. Obviously the person or group who steals such information is violating the law, but this doesn’t prevent others from legally publishing it.

However, publishing a full email of sufficient length is a different situation, and could potentially violate copyright law (yes emails can be protected by copyright). And publishing other materials such as scripts would almost certainly be copyright infringement. But the email excerpts the media has been publishing are probably fine.

Does that mean if someone hacks into MY emails, the media can publish them?

No, because your emails are (probably) not newsworthy, and (almost definitely) not a matter of public concern. Sorry.

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