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There are many documents containing "Reproduced with permission of copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission". I'd like to read those which were legally uploaded. However I am unsure about how I can determine if the uploaded copy on a webpage is the original, the single reproducible copy or a further-copied pirate copy. Do you have any tips? If it's not possible to determine this, would the legally wiser choice be to read the document or to assume that it's an illegal copy?

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  • I’m voting to close this question because document verification is not a question about the law.
    – bdb484
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 15:49
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    Is the OP trying to decide what it is legitimate to copy or to read? Commented May 6, 2022 at 15:53
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    This is a question about how one can know what is and what is not legally permitted, and so about the law, in my view. Commented May 6, 2022 at 16:44

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It does not matter whether the document is authentic, because it is true, by law. Under copyright law, you must have permission of the copyright holder to copy any protected work (original creative work not created as a work of the US, as an example under US law). This is true whether or not the copyright holder tells you that copying requires permission.

A matter for more concern is "false permission", where a person without the right to grant permission utters something that the courts would usually interpret as being "permission", for example releasing a Harry Potter book under CC-0. The legal requirement is that you have actual permission, not that a prohibition was not communicated to you. It is in your interest to know whether the actual person making available a work under some license actually has the right to grant a license. But there is no way to know for certain who holds copyright. You can, however, attempt to determine that a work has been registered with the US copyright office, looking here. Works are still protected when not registered, so failing to find a copyright registration does not guarantee that the work is "open access". It would tell you who the registered copyright holder is.

There is no "innocent infringement" defense, but under §504(c)(2), your liability for statutory damages can be reduced to as little as $200, if you can prove that there were no indications that the work is protected.

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  • Excellent answer, but just to clarify: Am I right in understanding that the “you” throughout (eg in “your liability for statutory damages”) means someone redistributing the work, not merely someone reading it as OP described? Commented May 8, 2022 at 16:17
  • I don't think the question asks is whether it is legal to read a pirated online work. AFAIK the answer to that question is theoretical and lacks pertinent case law, at least in the US. Reading a work online does technically involve making a copy.
    – user6726
    Commented May 8, 2022 at 17:47
  • I agree, I don’t think the question is asking about the legality of reading — but it is written from the perspective of a reader (“I'd like to read those which were legally uploaded”, “…would the legally wiser choice be to read the document…”) so it seemed worth clarifying which rôle you mean by “you”. Commented May 8, 2022 at 18:06
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Trick question: you can't read the single original copy "legally", because it's stored on a hard disk in a datacenter and you have to make multiple copies of it to even get it to your computer.

This sounds silly but has been used in court in various situations, and eventually got a specific exemption ("technical copies") in EU copyright law.

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  • It makes sense to have this exemption, however if the allowed copy was one on paper and not an electronic one, that would make all electronic copies illegal. That's what I was curious about: is the original legal copy a material one or a digital one?
    – MCCCS
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 16:40
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Even if someone already violated the direction not to make further copies, that does not make it unlawful to read the document. Just as if someone makes and sells a pirate copy of a book, it is not copyright infringement to buy that pirated copy, nor to read it. It would be to re-sell it, however.

It is not technically easy to create a digital document where copying (or unauthroized copying) can be easily detected. Indeed the best way is for the copyright owner to state, separately, where an authorized copy may be found, and to declare that all other copies are unauthorized.

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  • Note under Australian law, it's also copyright infringement if you download it. Commented May 8, 2022 at 11:39
  • Do you have any case law support for the claim that downloading a pirated work without redistribution is legal?
    – user6726
    Commented May 8, 2022 at 17:49
  • @user6726 I did not say that "downloading a pirated work without redistribution is legal". I said that reading a copy is legal, and buying a physical copy is legal Downloading is arguably making a copy. Downloading to a cache for reading purposes only is making a technical copy, and is not infringement by statute in many but not all countries. Downloading for future reading is probably infringement, but often no action would be taken in the absence of further distribution or reuse. Commented May 8, 2022 at 17:55
  • How do you read an online work without downloading it – as you admit? I'm just looking for any legal support for the claim that reading a pirated work is legal. Focus on US law
    – user6726
    Commented May 8, 2022 at 18:13
  • @user6726 If someone has made a physical copy, say by printing out the document, that person has probably committed infringement, but someone else who reads it has not. I incline to think that merely displaying a copy for reading purposes without storing it is not truly downloading it, but I will need to check for case law if this is technically infringement in the US. Commented May 8, 2022 at 18:23

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