(I'd be interested in UK, US, or any internet/international biased opinions here; as well as anything I could further ready up on!)

Let's assume a physical Text exists.

Is it legal for person A to transcribe the Text into digital form, for personal use? (eg. Easy searchability)

I make the assumption that it is frowned upon and increasingly likely to draw legitimate legal action if person A shares that Transcription with others — even non-commercially, as a "gift". (One friend no-one's going to care, an entire classroom might be legal risk a school would avoid, "publish on the internet" would be a high risk)

Does that risk level change if person A was able to assert that:

  1. The recipient definitely owns a copy of the source text?
  2. There are no commercial transcriptions available for purchase?
  3. The recipient would also be obtaining for the same level of personal use as if they had put the work in to do the transcription themselves?
  • I'd be interested if there's an actual case about this, but if you make personal copies just for your own personal study purposes (e.g. if you transcribe paragraphs of text into your study notebook to memorise/learn them), that's probably a fair use, since it's for "scholarship or research" as specified in copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#107. It's very theoretical, though, since if you don't distribute the results of your copying (e.g. they're confined to your private notebook), the copyright holder has no way of learning about your "illegal copies" that you made for studying.
    – Brandin
    Sep 2, 2022 at 10:59
  • See also 3: law.stackexchange.com/questions/17588/… That one's probably not fair use, since the purpose of that scheme is obviously not for study purposes; the purpose is to get free textbook copies and claim that this is legal; in such a scheme I think factor 4 is definitely not in their favor in that example.
    – Brandin
    Sep 2, 2022 at 11:05
  • My use case was around recipe management software (like mela.recipes, or Paprika) that can OCR a photo of a physical book to make a searchable digital version that you can use for your grocery list & auto unit conversion etc. I was wondering whether a (no profit) application that allowed users who've made digital copies of whole books (for their own use) could allow other users to short-cut the OCR process by peer-to-peer sharing (with intermediating software that ensures the second user owns the book, "what is the first word on the 3rd step of the recipe on page 42" etc)
    – JP.
    Sep 6, 2022 at 21:38
  • I'm certain I could build a system that would require knowledge too burdensome to not already own a functional copy of the book, but for such a scheme to be scalable there would have to be protection for the users who made the original copy (and/or the author/publisher/administrator of this software). It sounds like there's the faintest possibility of this being possible, but complex enough that it's not really viable. A shame!
    – JP.
    Sep 6, 2022 at 21:41

1 Answer 1


Per definition: transcription

Transcription (from Latin: trans scribere -> transcribere: to transfer (text)) is one of two things:

  • Taking audio and turning it into text
  • taking one text and turning it into a text in a different writing style, e.g. Cyrillic to Latin, Japanese (Kanji, Katakana, Hiragana) to Romanji, handwritten script to digital Latin letters.

To transcribe is to make a copy

A transcription is by default a full copy of the original text. If it is a pure transcription, there is no creative element added - a translation would have such an element in some regard.

Making a copy under copyright

Copyright is the exclusive right of the Author to make copies or assign the right to make copies. So by default, transcriptions are copyright infringement.

However, there is fair use or fair dealing. In the US, Fair-use is defined as needing to satisfy the fair use factors more than not. They are defined in 17 U.S.C. § 107:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In general, the second factor more often than not cuts against fair use in works of fiction. Transcription of the whole work also wouldn't necessarily be fair use, as the third factor demands the absolute minimal amount needed to be taken. However, factor 1 - personal non-profit use, especially for research or criticism - can heavily cut for fair use. And factor four, "market impact", of a purely personal file that never enters circulation heavily cuts for fair use. As a result, it might be fair use, if for purely personal use.

Sharing would alter the market impact: the more the file is shared, the more market impact it has - it is a full substitute, so it might be deemed to destroy the market of the original, cutting heavily against fair use.

  • Thank you for such a detailed answer! I'm understanding that the risk here is in making the copy (even if part of the Text, and only for personal use, there would still only be protection under the fair use points you've listed above). Is there anything you're able to add about the subsequent transfer to a new party, under the constraints I described above, if the original copy was considered fair use?
    – JP.
    Aug 30, 2022 at 8:15
  • 1
    You change the market impact factor by sharing. How much sharing is fair use? Hard to tell.
    – Trish
    Aug 30, 2022 at 9:34
  • Thank you so much!
    – JP.
    Aug 30, 2022 at 11:09
  • 1
    @JP. When you "transfer" it to a new party, presumably you're making a new copy to that new party, and that new copy may not be a fair use, even if your first copy was fair use.
    – Brandin
    Sep 2, 2022 at 10:41

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