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There are a lot of textbooks (typically out of print, I think) that the publisher/copyright owner has decided to make freely available online as a pdf. (see this, for example of what I mean) Is it legal to print such texts for personal use as long as it is not explicitly stated to be prohibited in the copyright notice on the pdf?

It seems to me that this should be fine, since if something is put online not under a pay-wall or on a private database, the copyright holder is presumably fine with people making (digital) copies, then why not physical copies?

Of course, I think the answer ultimately is: "Ask the copyright-holder for permission if you want to be absolutely sure", but I wanted to ask the legal community if this sort of thing is legal in general, either because of specific copyright laws, or legal precedent on this sort of thing.

  • You should add a further condition to your "should be fine" list, since many pirates illegally post e-books without the owner's permission – i.e. "if put online by the rights-holder". – user6726 Feb 4 '17 at 0:30
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It is not definitively knowable whether such printing is allowed in the US. There is no specific statutory permission by way of a "private use" exception to copyright law. Copyright law would generally say that making any copy without permission is illegal; but we have the murky zone of "fair use". The way you would, in principle, get a more definitive answer would be to look at the case law, and see how courts have treated similar cases. "Fair use" means that non-infringing use is based on "balancing"

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Printing a book is not fair use per (3), it tends somewhat to not be fair use per (4). Point (2) is supposed to be about "commentary", so simple re-printing does not add anything (derivative works are "more fair" than exact reproductions). It might make it under point (1). So maybe it's fair, maybe it's unfair.

Then by consulting all of the case law, you can see if there are decisions on point. There are none: there is no precedent as to the fairness or unfairness of printing out a copy of an online textbook which fails to grant or deny permission to print. The reason for that lack of case law is that it would be very expensive for the rights-holder to litigate the matter to the point of getting a definitive judgment. Most case law is about a large organization that makes a fair amount of money off of an act of copying. This unfair use case is more unfair than what you describe, and is not sufficiently analogous (the distributor is a university; the work was unpublished). Another somewhat informative case is Richards v. Merriam-Webster, where the guy wanted to create a version of a dictionary. He apparently decided to ask the courts first rather than do and then apologize, and the court said "No, that's not fair". Although the use was highly transformative, the extent of copying was complete, and the effect on market (which is where this is not parallel to your case) would be devastating.

There is a very weak further defense that might be mounted, that it is reasonable to believe that you have permission. Many online works are set up to be unprintable (barring the page my page screen shot approach). If the work is not crippled, and it is put out on the web for everyone to see, then it is reasonable to assume that you have implicit permission, since if permission was denied, the file would have been secured to make it unprintable (not a technically difficult thing to do). Fair use presupposes good faith. Everyone knows you should get written permission, to avoid doubt, but I do not know of any case law where "implicit permission" is (un)successfully invoked.

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Although the exact answer should depend on the country you are, in general private copies of copyrighted works are allowed. General rules are:

  • You need to have got the work in a legitimate way. That is, that you have purchased a copy of the work with permission from copyright owners or you have got the work from an act of public distribution authorised by copyright owners - if you got it from a website that is not making a copyright infringement itself, you are in the second case.
  • That you don't make a collective or commercial use of the work.

(I took these rules from Spanish Intellectual Property law (article 31), but most countries have similar rules, specially in the European Union. Anyway, the exact limits of private copying exception may differ).

Since private copying might have an economic effect, some countries collect private copying levies to compensate copyright owners - probably you have already paid for those when purchasing the printer.

Therefore, you can print a book downloaded from a website (unless the site is hosting the work without authorization of the copyright owners, as pirate sites do) for your own use. You can't sell the copies or made a collective use of them. Although reach of collective use might be hard to assess, I would suggest that if you want all the people in your class have the book, send them the link so that any one could print their own copy.

Update about the USA

As the OP has now specified now their country I update the answer with a comment, although an additional answer by anybody more knowledgeable on US law would be great.

I'm quite sure that for practical purposes the result is that you can print such a book anywhere in the world. However, I don't know which laws regulates that in the US. Google doesn't return meaningful results for "private copy usa", so I suppose it is know there by another name. Furthermore, statutes in common law countries tend to be less explicit and there might be no case law applicable. For example, I nobody printing a copy of a pdf for himself to read at home has ever been challenged in court in the USA, there might be no explicit rule about the subject.

  • Sorry, I probably should have added this to my question originally, but: Does the same apply with regard to U.S. copyright law? – Nathan BeDell Feb 3 '17 at 19:05
  • A site which hosts and distributes the copyrighted work with authorisation from the copyright owner. Since the idea is already in the first bullet point I preferred not to repeat in the last paragraph to keep the sentence concise. Do you think I should state it again to make the answer more clear? – Pere Feb 3 '17 at 19:13
  • @Sintrastes I'm quite sure that for practical purposes the result is that you print such a book anywhere in the world. However, I don't know what laws regulate it in the US. Google doesn't return meaningful results for "private copy usa", so I suppose it is know there by another name. Furthermore, statutes in common law countries tend to be less explicit and there might be no case law applicable. For example, I nobody printing a copy of a pdf for himself to read at home has ever been challenged in court in the USA, there might be no explicit rule about the subject. – Pere Feb 3 '17 at 19:20
  • @K-C I'll check the wording. About what matters, the key point I wanted to highlight is that if the copyright holder has authorized distribution on the web page it doesn't matter if the copyright holder has authorized printing copies. – Pere Feb 3 '17 at 19:35
  • @K-C In countries with legislation on private copies, authorizing reproduction via download implies authorizing printing for private use - at least, in general - just as broadcasting on TV authorizes reproduction on videotape for private use. In the US (under fair use) the outcome may be different or at least based on a very different reasoning - I don't know. Maybe you want to add an answer about the USA. That would be great. – Pere Feb 3 '17 at 19:45

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