In the following, all parties live and all actions are taken entirely within the United States.

Let us say that a person (Bob) has purchased a book from the book store. Bob likes the book enough to give one or more copies to friends. Bob does not want to part with his own copy, and Bob does not want to pay more than he already has, so Bob photocopies the book and gives the copy to Sue.

Sue knows that the copy she is receiving is a copied book that Bob made for her and that copying an entire book is a copyright violation in the United States. Still, Sue accepts the book, reads it, and enjoys it enough that she passes it along to Alice.

Alice knows that the copy she is receiving is a copied book and that copying an entire book is a copyright violation in the United States, though she is not aware of its origins. Still, Alice accepts the book, reads it, and enjoys it.

In doing my research, I can easily see that Bob has violated the copyright. In trying to figure out whether Sue or Alice are also in violation, all the material I am finding is focusing entirely on the act of reproducing the work or of giving it away. I am having difficulty finding anything about receiving such a copied work.

I understand that Sue and Alice could possibly be held accountable for being complicit if they requested the book, especially if Bob copied the book as a direct consequence of such a request. For the purposes of this question, I would like to ignore the "complicit in Bob's copying" aspect of this situation.

Is accepting the book a violation of anything (except being complicit, as mentioned above)? Especially, does is it a violation of copyright? Does the answer change at all between Sue and Alice since Alice can see the book is copied, knows Sue herself did not copy it, but knows nothing of its origins?

Since the receivers of copies are rarely targeted by the copyright holders (or publishers) and generally the illegal distributors are targeted instead, I realize that this may not have been pressed in court, and maybe never will be. If that is the case, "There is no precedent." could be an acceptable answer, and it would explain why I cannot find an answer. However, I expect that there are at least some cases where a precedent of some sort was set and that they are merely being drowned out by all the other information.

  • It doesn't seem sensible that the answer could be "yes". If so, what's stopping a malicious person from making a copy of the book and then throwing it into Alice's/Bob's/Sue's house?
    – Allure
    Nov 21, 2018 at 22:58
  • @Allure: the law could be changed to make it infringement to knowingly or willfully receive an unlawful copy. It hasn't been, I suspect because it is more effective to go after mass producers or distributors of unlawful copies. Nov 23, 2018 at 18:15
  • @Allure And with that in mind my original version of the question also included a 3rd person who received the book without realizing that it was photocopied. But at that point I thought I was going too far into a different question that could be asked separately. Originally, I also had Dave who is absent minded and did not notice (don't know, don't care, didn't pay attention) that the book was copied and had no idea what the source was, but I deleted that before posting.
    – Aaron
    Nov 26, 2018 at 15:54

1 Answer 1


Under 17 USC 106 (3) one of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner is:

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;

Distributing an entire book cannot plausibly be considered to be fair use. Nor does the library exception apply. The exception in sec 109 (first sale doctrine) applies only to:

the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner...

17 USC 501 (a) says:

(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 or right of the author, as the case may be.

Therefore both Bob and Sue have infringed the copyright, and could in theory be sued for doing so. However I cannot see anything in 17USC which makes receiving an unlawful copy an infringement, or any other crime or tort. It seems to me that Alice has no legal liability, whatever her moral position may be, unless perhaps she could be charged with conspiracy to infringe the copyright, which seems unlikely to me in practice, and perhaps not possible even in theory.

If Bob has in fact done this only once, for one book, the chancre of the copyright owner learning of it, or filing suit even if the owner does learn, is perhaps not large. But that would be no defense if the owner chose to sue. Some copyright owners choose to explicitly permit actions similar to that of Bob (where e-books are involved), provided that Bob does not charge a fee, regarding it as good advertising. But that is the copyright owner's choice to make, and most commercial publishers do not take that position.

Bob could have legally loaned his copy to Sue, and Sue could have legally passed it on to Alice, without anyone infringing the copyright. Making the copy without permission was infringing, and passing on the unlawful copy was also an act of infringement.

Receiving one copy or many does not seem to be a violation, unless it is part of a plan to later distribute unlawful copies. Sue did not make a copy. She distributed an unlawful copy, which is also infringement, as the quoted part of Sec 106 says. While in theory the publisher could have authorized Bob to make the copy, this is not plausible and no reasonable person would believe this to be an authorized copy. So Sue has good reason to believe that the copy is unauthorized. So the distribution is infringement.


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