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Let's say I wanted to compile voicemail greetings for a fun project which may be put online. The voicemails would be of school district administrators from their office phone numbers. Would the practice of recording the greetings be illegal? What about posting them online?

  • What country are you talking about? But if you are doing it without their consent it is likely illegal (and definitely unethical, but that's a different question). – Philipp Dec 21 '18 at 15:24
  • In the United States. – Dance Party Dec 21 '18 at 15:38
  • I would not disclose the identity of the individuals speaking. – Dance Party Dec 21 '18 at 15:39
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    The issue is that the recording may be copyright of the person who made it, and using it without permission would be illegal. I would suggest if you want to do this, you get permission from that person first. Most likely you would need to attribute your sources which is identifying information. – Ron Beyer Dec 21 '18 at 16:35
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    @IñakiViggers To be copyrightable in the US, something needs to have at least a small amount of originality and be in fixed form. A voice mail greeting is obviously in a fixed form, since it can be reproduced at will. If there is any creativity in it, it's automatically copyrighted. – David Thornley Dec 21 '18 at 17:51
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A voicemail greeting, like any original sequence of words, will be protected by copyright. Making and publishing a copy without permission would be an infringement of that copyright, and could subject the person who does it to a civil lawsuit.

However, such a greeting normally has no commercial value, and it is hard to see how any actual damages could be assessed. In the US, statutory damages could apply, but since the greeting is unlikely to carry a copyright notice, the person sued might claim to be an "innocent infringer", which could significantly reduce the damages assessed. (However if such a person had read this answer, and that were brought out in court, s/he would be on notice of the copyright protection, and could not claim to be "innocent".)

Moreover, the defendant could still raise the defense of fair-use (In the US). The would be no harm to the market for the work, since there is no market, which would favor fair use. The whole of the work would probably be used, which would tend against fair use. A greeting is somewhat creative, more so than a work of non-fiction, although usually less so than actual fiction or verse, which leans slightly against fair use. It is hard to say if this kind of reuse would be considered transformative, it would probably depend on what sort of commentary, if any, was provided. In all, a fair use defense seems pretty close to a coin flip, but not as predictable.

In any case, judges often do not favor suits over technical infringements of works with no commercial value where no meaningful damage has occurred, and often award minimal damages within the statutory range, which is wide.

Given all that, the risk of suit seems low. The question mentions "school district administrators" If the person doing this is a student, this might be looked on negatively by the school district, which might be able to frame it as against some district policy or other. Consider possible repercussions carefully.

As always on Law.SE, this is not legal advice. Before acting you may wish to consult an actual lawyer.

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If there's any originality in the greetings, they're copyrightable, and hence copyrighted. That means that further reproduction without permission is unlawful.

One of the people who made a greeting could conceivably file suit against you in Federal court. Damages would be minimal, unless whoever registered a copyright, but the court decision could include an injunction against further use. To me, filing suit seems like an awful lot of time, money, and hassle to achieve that, but not everybody may feel that way.

You speak of putting the project online. In that case, anyone whose copyrighted work was used can send a DMCA takedown notice, which is likely to get your project removed from its hosting site. Filing one of those is a lot cheaper than a Federal case.

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Would the practice of recording the greetings be illegal? What about posting them online?

Based on the information and your comments, I see no issues from legal or ethical standpoints.

A voicemail greeting is a message that a person intends to transmit to others (in general, to the public), with full awareness that the timing and recipients of the transmission are uncertain/unpredictable and beyond that person's control.

The possibility of triggering a reproduction of the recording through methods other than the dialing of that person's phone number does not by itself infringe that person's cognizable interests/rights such as privacy or safety. In other words, the use of a telephone system is not a legal prerequisite for each reproduction (or indeed, the broadcasting) of a person's greeting to the unknown public.

From the ethical standpoint, besides the absence of a secrecy or privacy factor, the nature of your initiative does not subject a person to undesirable effects such as a degradation of his relations or of his self-esteem.

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    The recording might be sufficiently original to be copyrightable. In that case, the copyright holder has authorized its reproduction as part of voice mail, and almost certainly not in any other situation. The fact that you can access something by public means doesn't mean it's open for unlimited use. – David Thornley Dec 21 '18 at 17:57
  • @DavidThornley Only a very small percentage of voicemails has originality. A plaintiff would have a hard time overcoming the fair use defense, since the author of a voicemail greeting hardly ever intends it to have market value on its own.Reproducing the greeting elsewhere does not harm the author's market share unless something is wrong with the greeting itself. A plaintiff is unlikely to prove or persuade that unlimited use in this context subjects him to a loss or risk thereof. – Iñaki Viggers Dec 21 '18 at 19:03
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    @Iñaki Viggers While "This is Joe Blow, leave a message at the tone" would not be original under the "required scenes" concept, anything less standard than that might well be original enough to get a copyright, the bar is quite low. Market value is only one of the 4 fair-use factors, see detailed comment on all 4 just added to my answer. – David Siegel Dec 21 '18 at 23:06

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