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Is It Legal to Photocopy Textbooks?

By Jenny Tsay, Esq. on August 14, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

College and grad students subsisting solely on Top Ramen may be trying to save money by photocopying textbooks. But is it legal to do so?

While the best approach is to lawfully purchase or rent a textbook, you may be able photocopy a small section of the book for a single assignment without violating copyright laws, as Lifehacker explains.

However, photocopying too much of a textbook could potentially lead to costly copyright infringement claims.

In general, textbooks are protected by copyright law. From the pictures and graphics in the book to the actual text itself, copyright law protects copyright owners from unlawful infringement.

Copyright owners have six exclusive rights when it comes to using their work. Only the owner of the copyright or someone who has licensed the work can exercise these rights. For textbook copyright holders, the relevant exclusive rights include:

  • The right to reproduce the copyrighted works in copies;
  • The right to distribute copies of the work to the public by sale, transfer of ownership, rental, lease, or lending; and
  • The right to prepare derivative works.

Based on these exclusive rights alone, it appears that only the copyright owners or licensed individuals are allowed to make photocopies of the textbook. Photocopying textbooks can be considered reproducing copies of the work, so you may be infringing unless the copying is deemed fair use.

When Is Photocopying Fair Use?

Although authors have pretty broad control how their copyrighted works are used, students wishing to make legal photocopies of a textbook may be able to do so under fair use law.

Fair use allows people to use copyrighted material without the author's permission if they're using it as parody, to criticize or comment, or for news reporting, teaching, or scholarship and research. So it seems like students are allowed able to photocopy textbooks if they're using the material for class or research papers.

It should be noted that although fair use may give you a one-time pass to photocopy the chapter for tonight's reading, it doesn't allow you to photocopy the entire book and distribute copies to your friends.

So if your professor wants you to buy an entire textbook, but assigns only a few pages of reading from it the whole semester, you're probably not violating any laws by making a single copy of those pages for your homework.

When in doubt, it may be wise to ask an intellectual property attorney so you can avoid being slapped with a lawsuit that costs way more than just purchasing the textbook.

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