Bob goes into a shop, sits down at one of the tables in its seating area, and reads an entire newspaper that is for sale which he then puts back onto the shelf without paying for.

What is the legal standing of his actions?

  • 12
    Isn't that exactly how a library works? Jan 5 at 9:30
  • 40
    Plot twist: Bob is an AI.
    – IS4
    Jan 5 at 10:10
  • 5
    interesting that noone is addressing the relationship between Bob and the shop. If the paper is for sale, is Bob wrongly taking it's value, say if we assume the shop does object even though the shop does not communicate to Bob this time.
    – Mike M
    Jan 5 at 13:21
  • 2
    @MikeM yes but under the canonical definition of theft he is not depriving the owner of the value of the item much less permanently Jan 5 at 14:03
  • 6
    Please edit and clarify whether the shop has the newspapers for its customers to read, or if the shop is actually selling them. Is this a coffee shop tat has newspapers on display or is it a news stand that sells newspapers?
    – terdon
    Jan 5 at 15:26

4 Answers 4


Bob is okay

Assuming that the shop owns the copy of the newspaper, and the manager does not object to what Bob is doing, he is fine.

  • Bob does not make a copy, he just uses the shop's copy as the shop pleases
  • The copyright owner does not have a say for the First-sale doctrine

Even if the newspaper copy is owned by someone else who has provided it to the shop to sell it, Bob is still fine (the manager isn't).

  • 2
    I don't understand the last point about the manager - are you saying the owner of a consignment shop cannot legally allow patrons to peruse books that are merely sold, but not owned, by the shop? My impression was that the first-sale doctrine was more about limiting the original copyright holder's distribution rights over physical copies rather than allowing others to exert it. If Alice loans a book to Bob, is Bob breaking the law by lending it to Charlie because he doesn't own it? Jan 5 at 14:45
  • 7
    @NuclearHoagie The last point is not about copyright. The manager would be in breach of his contract with the supplier of the newspapers who would be very unhappy that instead of selling them, he allows Bob to read them for free.
    – Greendrake
    Jan 5 at 14:49
  • 2
    @Barmar Then the store owns that material, and the last sentence of the answer does not apply.
    – Greendrake
    Jan 5 at 15:20
  • 1
    Why isn't the manager OK if they do not object to potential customers reading the material even if they decide in the end not to buy it? This seems like a pretty common model for bookstores.
    – PC Luddite
    Jan 5 at 17:54
  • 5
    @PCLuddite: Bookstores generally own their wares. It's only a problem if they're using some kind of agency model (where the bookstore does not own the books on the shelf, but merely agrees to sell them on behalf of the publisher). Even then, there would have to be a specific term in the contract saying that the retailer must not allow customers to read the books without paying for them. While the agency model is a real thing in both the physical book and ebook worlds, I am not sure if the average agency contract would have that kind of specificity.
    – Kevin
    Jan 5 at 21:22


Bob is not making a copy - no violation.


Bob is not using the newspaper in trade or commerce - no violation


The newspaper doesn't have patent protection - no violation.

Registered Design

Ditto patents.


That's how newspapers at bakery-cafes work in . There are two differences though: the newspapers are not for sale in the first place but the bakeryhas a subscription for them, and they are mounted on a stick to keep them from being folded and unfolded repeatedly.

At a place that sells papers, it's up to the operating clerk to enforce the shop's ownership in the newspapers. As the owner's agent, he could demand Bob to buy or leave, but that's the extent of it.

Copyright is not touched at all.

  • 7
    The question is explicitly about a shop that sells reading materials, not simply provides them for use when in the shop.
    – PC Luddite
    Jan 5 at 17:59

As other answers have mentioned, there are no Intellectual Property issues, as the publisher of the newspaper is not damaged in any way - the newspaper is not being copied. What really matters though is the rules of the store. If the store prohibits reading items without purchasing them, then that could be theft. They could have general rules against this, though in that case they are unlikely to have a seating area because that would encourage reading.

However they might, for example, have rules against taking any reading materials into the bathroom, with the idea that something brought into a bathroom is likely to have gotten dirty and not be salable. Arguably any such rules should be clearly posted, as otherwise only actual physical damage (e.g., ripping a page of a newspaper or book) would fall under a you break it, you bought it rule.

  • In which jurisdiction would reading a paper, but not taking it away) be theft? In the regions I'm familiar with, theft requires an intent to deprive the owner of the possession, and that's clearly not present here. Breaching the owner's conditions isn't a criminal matter, certainly in Britain. Jan 7 at 15:30
  • The example I give with the bathroom (made famous by Seinfeld) is that taking reading material into a bathroom is presumed to damage it and therefore prohibited by the store. It isn't "reading" - that could be done in the main part of the store with no problem, it is taking it into the bathroom for toilet reading (which is a controversial topic...) that causes the problem. Jan 7 at 15:38
  • 1
    It wasn't obvious that you were referring to the subsequent paragraph when you wrote that - it's a confusing construction. Anyway, at least where I sit, that would be a "damage to property" offence rather than theft. I just realised I hadn't yet given you my vote (+1, because the first sentence gives a correct answer to the question). Jan 11 at 8:38

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