If you cannot afford to purchase books for your college courses, can you just download them from the Internet and get away with it? Can you copy and distribute those textbooks to other students? Maybe, but you certainly should not. And you could be subject to civil and criminal penalties if you do.
Copyright law grants to authors and publishers exclusive rights to reproduce their works, to distribute copies of those works, to prepare derivative works based on those works, and to perform and display the works publicly. The copyright law makes it illegal to infringe these rights, and the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of copyrighted works is a crime punishable by both civil and criminal penalties.
Many professors require students to purchase or rent textbooks for their classes. The prices of books from major publishers can be staggering. The average cost of a new textbook is about $50.00, and over the course of a four-year college career, a student can spend anywhere from $1,200 to $2,100 on textbooks. In fact, according to a 2012 survey by the Student Public Interest Research Group, students in the United States spend an average of $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies.
Laws and penalties
The U.S. Copyright Act allows students to make a single copy of a work for personal use and to loan that copy to another student. However, the Act expressly prohibits photocopying entire textbooks or portions of them, distributing copies of a work to other students, or displaying the work publicly. That’s because the author or publisher has exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, display, and prepare derivative works based on that work.
The Act authorizes the government to impose civil and criminal penalties on anyone who infringes a copyright. The civil penalty, which is intended to compensate the copyright owner for the violation, can range from $500 to $30,000 for each work infringed. If you knowingly infringe on a copyright, you can be liable for up to $150,000 in civil damages for each work you copied or distributed.
The criminal penalty for copyright infringement is a fine of up to $250,000 and imprisonment for up to five years. Criminal penalties are reserved for egregious violations of the law, and you would have to be charged with criminal intent in order to face criminal penalties.
There are some exceptions to copyright protection. The most important exception is for fair use. Fair use is a legal doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted materials for the purpose of criticism, commentary, news reporting, research, teaching, or scholarship. It does not permit the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of entire books.
The fair use doctrine protects students who make copies of copyrighted works for the purpose of classroom instruction, and it protects educators who reproduce or distribute materials in the classroom. But these exceptions don’t allow for the reproduction of entire books or the unauthorized distribution of electronic copies of them.
The Copyright Act lists some specific situations in which a copyrighted work may be copied or distributed without the permission of the copyright owner.
These include the following:
- Libraries and archives may make one copy of an unpublished work for purposes of preservation;
- Copy shops and service bureaus may make one copy of a copyrighted work for the purpose of transmitting it to the owner of the original;
- Teachers may make copies of portions of works to be distributed in the classroom; and
- Translators may make a single copy of a work for the purpose of translation.
However, merely because the law permits you to make a copy of a work for one of these purposes does not mean you can make copies of copyrighted works for other purposes without the consent of the copyright owner. And you are not permitted to make copies of entire books, or to distribute copies of books to other students.
Copyright owners are entitled to enforce their exclusive rights by suing for damages and an injunction to stop the infringement. They are also entitled to collect attorney’s fees and court costs from an infringer.
A copyright owner may also report a suspected infringement to the U.S. Copyright Office, which will investigate and notify the infringer. If the Copyright Office determines that the infringement was willful, it will send a warning letter to the infringer. If the alleged infringer continues to infringe after receiving the warning, the Copyright Office will notify the U.S. Attorney for the district in which the infringement was committed so that the government can bring a civil action against the infringer.
The government is also authorized to bring criminal charges against an infringer. The government may also seize and destroy infringing copies of a work.
What you can do?
If you need a book for a class but cannot afford to purchase it, you can try to borrow it from the library or a friend. Most college libraries have a large number of textbooks for students to use. You may also be able to find websites that provide students with free textbooks.
If you are unable to borrow the book you need, you do have some options. The Copyright Act allows you to make a single copy of a work for your personal use. If you want to make copies of a work to distribute to other students, however, you should first contact the copyright owner of the work to obtain permission.
If you are unable to locate the copyright owner or obtain permission, you may be able to make a single copy for classroom use. The law provides that you may make one copy for purposes of classroom instruction and one copy for your own use.
If you are unable to make a single copy for classroom use, you may file a request with the U.S. Copyright Office for a “compulsory license” to reproduce the work. To qualify for a compulsory license, you must show that you have tried but have been unable to obtain permission to use the work, and that you need to make the reproduction for educational use.
The Copyright Office will then publish your request in the Federal Register, and it will allow any copyright owner or copyright user who has a legitimate interest in the work to object to your request for a compulsory license. If no one objects, the Copyright Office will issue a license for you to make the reproduction.
Please keep in mind that these options are not intended to encourage you to violate the law. In fact, you are legally obligated to follow the law. But if you find yourself in a situation where you cannot purchase or obtain a copy of a work you need for class, these options may provide you with a way to fulfill your educational obligations.
Copyright law grants to authors and publishers exclusive rights to reproduce their works, to distribute copies of those works, to prepare derivative works based on those works, and to perform and display the works publicly.
The copyright law makes it illegal to infringe these rights, and the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of copyrighted works is a crime punishable by both civil and criminal penalties.
Many professors require students to purchase or rent textbooks for their classes.
The prices of books from major publishers can be staggering. The average cost of a new textbook is about $50.00, and over the course of a four-year college career, a student can spend anywhere from $1,200 to $2,100 on textbooks.
In fact, according to a 2012 survey by the Student Public Interest Research Group, students in the United States spend an average of $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies.