Monday, March 23, 2009

A Reader's Guide to Copyright

REWRITE NOTE: (Monday, April 13, 2009) I have added a few clarifications to the information in this blog.

Several blogs have taken me to task for not giving enough technical information about copyright, but since this is supposed to be a very general overview for readers, not an exhaustive legal discussion on the subject, I stand by my content.

If you want an exhaustive overview complete with all the legalese and laws, I suggest the sites I have links to at the bottom.

For those concerned that I did not cover more of the reader’s rights as far as what you can and can’t do with copyrighted content, I suggest the site on “fair use” I have listed below. “Fair use” deals with people writing articles and reviews and has little to do with those of us who are just reading the books so I did not cover it in detail.


With the introduction of the scanner, the Internet, and ebooks, copyright legal issues that readers face have become much more complex.

A savvy reader should understand the simple basics of copyright to avoid running afoul of legal troubles and to avoid hurting the authors they enjoy.

Here is a brief layman’s overview of the subject. First, a general definition.

COPYRIGHT: The legal protection of the ownership of intellectual property including writing. From the reader’s perspective the copyright is the contents of the book.

The leasing of those copyrights to publishers then to the reader is how an author makes money.


Protecting and respecting the author’s copyright is the right thing to do.

If an author doesn’t make money by selling books, she will probably stop writing, and you will have lost some great reads.

If the author doesn’t sell enough books because of illegal books, the publisher won’t buy the next book.

A vast majority of writers make very little money. If they don’t have a second job or a mate who supports the family, they can’t afford to write. Don’t take what little money they make away from them.

Stealing or misusing copyright is not a way to thank an author for giving you pleasure.

Pitbulls disguised as copyright lawyers will attack you and your family if you use someone else’s copyrighted material illegally. “I didn’t understand the law” won’t save your rear in cases like this.


When you buy a paper book, you own the paper, but you don't own the contents which still belongs to the copyright owner. You can sell the paper, you can burn the paper, or you can stick that paper into your bookshelf, and that's okay because you own it.


You buy the right to read the content of an ebook. You do not own the contents. That means that you can't sell an ebook to someone else. You also can’t post the ebook online for others to read, nor can you print out a copy to share with friends or to sell.

Most authors and publishers don’t care if you print out a copy for yourself. Others prevent you from doing this with security software (DRM). If they don’t want you to copy it, don’t copy it.

Most authors and publishers don’t mind if you have another copy of the book stored on a disk or extra computer drive as a back up as long as it will be for your use in case of a computer crash.

For more information on ebook copyright, "used" ebooks, and your rights and lack of them, read my article, "Ebooks and The First Sale Doctrine."


Publishers use digital rights management (DRM) software to prevent the reader from doing certain things with an ebook including copying, printing, and text-to-speech features.

Don’t use other software or another method to do what the DRM is supposed to prevent. It’s illegal, and the possibility of legal trouble just isn’t worth it.

If the DRM screws up your enjoyment of the book, be sure to tell the publisher. Complaints have changed some publishers’ attitudes to DRM.

If they don’t remove DRM from their books, buy from other publishers.


Making digital pictures of a book’s pages or a digital copy of the book’s words is illegal, but few publishers care if you do this for your own use if you already own a copy of the book. Most don’t care if you copy pages of a book or article for use in your research. It is illegal to post the contents online except for short excerpts.


You can quote small portions of a book in a review or critical article. This is called “fair use.” For more detail, go here:


A few small changes in a book’s contents does not make it your book. For example, you can’t change the characters’ names and post the book online because the book still belongs to the author.


Books no longer in copyright are in the public domain. You may do anything you please with these ebooks. The Gutenberg site is an excellent place to check to see if a book is in the public domain because they rigorously vet their books.

If the book is not in public domain yet appears online without the author or publisher’s permission, it is a stolen book. Report it to the author or the publisher.


Reading aloud to your children or privately to someone else will never be illegal. What is illegal is reading someone else's work for profit without permission.

In other words, you can read A CAT IN THE HAT to your kids or a group of kids, but if you do that and charge admission without the permission of the Dr. Seuss' estate or publisher, it is illegal. It is also illegal to sell a copy of your reading if you do so without permission.


The legality of using a computer voice to read an ebook-- text to speech-- is currently in question. However, most authors and publishers don’t care if you use TTS on their books as long as it for personal use only. Some authors and publishers use security software (DRM) to prevent TTS from working.


Here’s an article on the legalities of writing fan fiction -- fiction written for fun, not profit, using other writers’ characters and universes.


For a more complex discussion of copyright, particularly publishing and copyright, check out this site by from Stanford University, and this one from publishing lawyer, Ivan Hoffman, .

Other excellent sites are

The Publishing Law Center

Scrivener’s Error Blog that covers some copyright subjects as well as having some excellent sites

For even more detail, do an online search on copyright or find a good book on the subject at your local library.

{NOTE: A blog entry is copyrighted material, but for this blog entry, I give you my permission to copy it, pass it around, post it on your blog, or whatever. I’d appreciate a link back, but that isn’t necessary.

You are also free to remove my name. If you change any of the content, you must remove my name. }


paulkbiba said...

Reprinted your post in full, with credit and links, on Teleread. Thanks.

Paul Biba

Frances Pauli said...

Thanks so much Marilynn. Reprinted with credit and link to Speculative Friction.
Wouldn't it be wonderful is there was a post so succinct that explained rights from the authors angle? I see so many aspiring authors posting their work on public forums and blogs without understanding first rights. Not to mention subsidiary rights.
It's a tangled web we weave..

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with some of your take on copyright issues, especially your reasons for why readers should care about copyright.

For example, "If an author doesn’t make money by selling books, she will probably stop writing, and you will have lost some great reads.

If the author doesn’t sell enough books because of illegal books, the publisher won’t buy the next book."

Modern American copyright expires 70 years after the author's death, so the argument that breaking copyright always directly affects the author doesn't hold water.

Actually, copyright in this country was largely developed and extended in order to protect corporations' ability to continue to profit on intellectual property long after the creator's death (esp. with Disney and Mickey Mouse).

I also disagree strongly that sharing books is always a bad thing for the author (or for readers). Torrenting books is one thing, but what about our ability to pass around books we like to friends and family?

The current state of ebook copyright prohibits those actions, which are good for authors and readers alike.

Essentially, I found this a helpful, concise summary of current copyright laws, but there's a big difference between what the law currently makes illegal and what readers should do or should feel bad about doing.

Corporations view copyright as a black and white issue, but it's up to us as writers and readers to see the gray areas in order to do what's best for our culture as a whole, and not just Disney's bottom line.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Marilynn. Great, helpful info.

Anonymous said...

Nice of you to leave out every damn right of the CONSUMER in this list, you biased ass.

Consumers: While some of this material is accurate, KNOW YOUR RIGHTS, especially regarding FAIR USE.

Every day, these rights are illegally challenged, forcing people into fear about usage of copyright.

If you're not sure: ASK.

Anonymous said...

Right of First Sale. Ever hear of it? YES you can sell the ebook. If I bought it I own it. Get over it.

I used to be somewhat sympathetic to the "plight" of content creators... but DMCA has resulted in such a distortion of copyright law. At this point, I would rather the whole concept of "copyright" be thrown completely out.

Good job, guys - after a decade of the DMCA - you rank one step above pond scum.

Unknown said...

I must say all these writing tips mentioned in your article "A Reader's Guide to Copyright" helped me with my academic writing. Thanks.

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