I know that a person needs license to copy, reproduce, redistribute, sell, and create derivative works of copyrighted material. However, do you ever need a license to read it (assuming you're not being recorded)? And, kudos if you can let me know the name of the right, if it exists, too.

I assume the answer is possibly different if the material was legally or illegally copied and you weren't the one who copied it.

I notice that some copyrighted books say 'All Rights Reserved'. So, if they don't grant any kind of license, maybe you can read all copyrighted material—or maybe they're just selling books that no one is legally entitled to read.

It would seem that reading would be a form of copying (since you are producing the words in your mouth or mind), but I don't know that either of those things hold legal water in any situation.

Here are some scenarios to consider:

  • You purchase a novel. It says All Rights Reserved, and grants no explicit license to use the material in any way, shape or form.
  • You find an old book on the ground. It says All Rights Reserved, and grants no explicit license to use the material in any way, shape or form.
  • You're in a class (not necessarily at an official school), and the teacher gives you photocopied copyrighted material to read, and you don't know whether it was legally photocopied. You didn't photocopy it yourself, and all you would do with it, if anything, is read it (silently or aloud in class or at home).
  • You go to a random website and see copyrighted song lyrics.
  • You go to a website with song lyrics, and you know the website does not have license to put them there (although the website owner may or may not know that it's copyrighted).
  • You go to a website with pirated novels (which you don't necessarily know are pirated, although you might have a feeling that they are).
  • You buy a used e-reader, and the previous owner left some copyrighted e-books on it (imagine both the scenario where the previous owner obtained the e-books legally, and where the previous owner pirated them).

You can imagine more situations if you like, but you're not required to specifically address any of those I listed in your answer (they're just examples).

Now, it seems like the ethical thing to do is not to read illegally copied material, even if there's no law to stop you (especially as they might accuse you of being the one to have copied them—however, for the purposes of the question, if possible, try not to turn this into a matter of getting prosecuted because someone thinks you copied the material that you didn't copy; for the purposes of this question, assume everyone in the world knows, believes and acts like you're not the one who copied it, impractical as that might seem). I don't know if this is only a matter of ethics or if it's also a matter of law here.

Some of these situations seem akin to the situation where someone gives you a flash drive with a bunch of [potentially] pirated videos on it that they say are legal. I don't know that there's a right to watch videos, either (or just copy them). I don't know if the laws are the same with regard to reading books, watching videos, listening to music, listening to audiobooks, etc. I just mean traditional reading for this question (whether books, articles, websites, etc.), but if the laws happen to be the same across different kinds of observation/exposure, feel free to point it out if you want.

I mean the question to encompass all of the following things:

  • Reading silently, to yourself.
  • Reading aloud to yourself (and not broadcasting or recording it)
  • Reading aloud to a private audience in your own house, such as to family members or roommates (non-commercially, and not broadcasting or recording it)
  • Reading aloud to a private audience outside your own house (non-commercially, and not broadcasting or recording it)
  • Reading aloud to a public audience, (non-commercially, and not broadcasting or recording it)
  • I don't mind if people talk about the commercial aspects, too, but it's not as important to me, as I'm mostly just wondering about things that people who aren't trying to make money by it (directly) are doing. An example of an indirect use as I meant it would be such as reading a book to yourself and applying the principles you learn to make money (which isn't applicable here).

Now, if the question is too broad by encompassing both illegally copied (not by you) and legally copied (not by you) reading material, just answer regarding legally copied materials (that's what I'm most curious about). Let me know if it's too broad, and I can edit my question. Thanks!

  • 1
    I assume from the range of your examples that you mean "read" in the ordinary sense, and not in the sense "perform for an audience": that matter should be clarified.
    – user6726
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 1:10
  • I mean to include both, but I was primarily wondering about reading in the traditional sense, like reading a book alone in your room or whatever, and not broadcasting it. But yeah, reading to your kids or students is definitely something I would have wanted to include. @user6726 Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 2:41

2 Answers 2


Physical content

The main consideration with physical content is that reading it does not require making a copy, so uncomplicated copyright law is what’s relevant. Copyright law is about making copies (also distributing). Purchase a novel (a physical book which was legally obtained). There is no copying involved (you do not in fact make a copy in your mind, if you're a human). Under the First Sale doctrine, once a copy is sold by the rights-holder (e.g. the publisher, initially to the bookstore or distributor), that owner can do whatever it wants with that specific copy, including reading or re-selling (and anying thereafter can likewise). Books are sold, not licensed. Copyright relates to copying, not reading. It’s true that all (legal) rights are reserved, but the power to prevent resale is not a right.

Book (or anything else) on the ground. As above, with the complication that you aren’t at least immediately the rightful owner. But, you don’t have to be the owner of a protected work to read it (otherwise libraries would not exist). The rightful owner might unsuccessfully try to sue you for reading their property, but reading does not cause damage, and your act is innocent (not even negligent), and not wrongful. Eventually (depending on jurisdiction) you may become the owner if the original owner does not reclaim the book.

Reading a copy made by someone else. See above about the relationship between reading and copyright. The teacher might maybe be liable for infringement, but you are not culpable (assuming you didn’t encourage the teacher to make an illegal copy).

Digital content

However, every item of digital content has to be copied many times, in order to actually be read. E.g. a copy is made to video display memory from RAM, which is copied some number of times from RAM to RAM as the program formats and sizes, ultimately reading a copy stored on disk storage (which is installed from.... using N temp files)

Typically what happens is that you acquire a copy of a license to use the content. Some number of copies may be statutorily permitted, e.g. the myriad transitory copies created across the internet as you download the work, or on your computer as you install it. The law addresses this matter in part at 17 USC 117, saying that

it is not an infringement for the owner of a copy of a computer program to make or authorize the making of another copy or adaptation of that computer program provided:

(1) that such a new copy or adaptation is created as an essential step in the utilization of the computer program in conjunction with a machine and that it is used in no other manner, or

(2) that such new copy or adaptation is for archival purposes only and that all archival copies are destroyed in the event that continued possession of the computer program should cease to be rightful.

Since Congress chose the word “program” rather than “file”, the plain reading of this is that permission is always required to read digital content. One may assume, when you purchase an electronic book at the store (you thus own the recording medium), that the work also comes with specific permission to make those automatic copies required to actually read the book on a computer. In order to read the book you must make some number of copies.

Seeing stuff on a web page. Let’s also assume that the material is on the page without permission, but you don’t know that, and it just jumps out at you. This raises an interesting question regarding statutory language and web pages. The statutory language is not at all clear about link-clicking (the statutes don't say anything about "links"), and I don't know of any relevant case law (probably because it would be ludicrous to go after an innocent link-clicker)

Infringement is defined in 17 USC 501(a):

Anyone who violates any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner as provided by sections 106 through 122 or of the author as provided in section 106A(a), or who imports copies or phonorecords into the United States in violation of section 602, is an infringer of the copyright

and if you infringe, you may be liable. 17 USC 106 spells out those rights:

the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords; …

(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending; …

When you go to a web page and click a link, are you reproducing the protected material? Or is the website owner reproducing the material, and pushing it onto you? I don’t know of any decisions that address this kind of technical question. There is no question that the person hosting the infringing material is liable, the question is whether you would be as well? It would be highly unjust to hold the innocent link-clicker responsible. There is a bit of protection for innocent infringement in 17 USC 405(b)

Any person who innocently infringes a copyright, in reliance upon an authorized copy or phonorecord from which the copyright notice has been omitted and which was publicly distributed by authority of the copyright owner before the effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988, incurs no liability for actual or statutory damages under section 504 for any infringing acts committed before receiving actual notice that registration for the work has been made under section 408, if such person proves that he or she was misled by the omission of notice. In a suit for infringement in such a case the court may allow or disallow recovery of any of the infringer’s profits attributable to the infringement, and may enjoin the continuation of the infringing undertaking or may require, as a condition for permitting the continuation of the infringing undertaking, that the infringer pay the copyright owner a reasonable license fee in an amount and on terms fixed by the court.

(c) Protection under this title is not affected by the removal, destruction, or obliteration of the notice, without the authorization of the copyright owner, from any publicly distributed copies or phonorecords.

(You could be prevented from further use of the infringing material, and liable for specific lost profit).

Infringement is not defined in terms of what you know or believe about the copyright status of work. Nevertheless, I would expect that in addressing the question of whether a person had in fact made a copy that they would look at the mental state of the individual, looking for mens rea. This could distinguish clicking a link that unexpectedly pushes protected material onto you, versus attempting to obtain protected material by clicking on a link.

  • Thanks! Can you clarify "In order to read the [digital] book you must make some number of copies." ? In the example where you find an e-reader with e-books already on it, I don't know of any copies that you are making, unless you mean wherein it's being copied to the RAM every time you read it, but even then, you could find it pre-loaded. Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 3:05
  • 1
    @user6726 writes: "There is no question that the person hosting the infringing material is liable, the question is whether you would be as well?" Not true, assuming the host is in the USA and follows the DMCA safe harbors, including removing the alleged infringement when requested by the copyright owners. 17 USC 512.
    – Upnorth
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 4:49
  • 1
    The premise in the question, as I understand it, is that the host knowingly and deliberately hosts infringing material, which that "spring" on an unsuspecting link-clicker. Such hosts are not immune from liability.
    – user6726
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 5:11

If you read a literary work to an audience then that is a derivative work of that literary work. Creating derivative works is a right reserved to the copyright owner.

Unless the usage is fair use (e.g. reading to your kids, educational use etc.) then "performing" the work is copyright violation. While this may sound strange if the work is a novel, it makes a lot of sense if the work is a play or sheet music - those are designed to be performed but, if they are under copyright, the copyright owner is entitled to royalties when they are.

  • Great to know. Do you have a source for your information, or is this a reasonable assumption? (I mean, that it applies to reading and not just musical performances, plays and such). Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 3:02
  • Simply reading to an audience (even in public) does not create a derivative work unless someone is recording the audio as you read. It is, however, a performance and thus subject to copyright license unless exempt, as noted. For instance, public reading (or performance of copyrighted music) of "non-dramatic" works is not an infringement if nobody is making money on it. 17 USC § 110(4).
    – Upnorth
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 22:35
  • 3
    "Reading to your kids" is not "fair use" (§ 107); it is outside the exclusive statutory rights of the copyright owners (§ 106) because it is neither creating a copy, a derivative work, a public distribution, a public performance, nor a public display.
    – Upnorth
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 4:56
  • 1
    @Upnorth The line between a "public" and a "non-public" performance can be fuzzy and overlaps with "fair use" and not "fair use" arguments. If I were writing a legal brief on a dispute involving that kind of facts, I'd argue both points.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 20:51
  • @ohwilleke 17 USC 101: To perform or display a work “publicly” means — (1) to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.." Not very fuzzy when the audience is comprised of "your own kids". A "fair use" defense would be the much weaker position.
    – Upnorth
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 17:35

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