Legal Considerations

The discussion on this page is background for deciding what kinds of printing of the PDF file of each book are permissible under the law and what kinds are not.  I am not a lawyer and cannot provide explicit advice on the matter.  This page instead describes some of the legal considerations that are involved.

The website of the U.S. Copyright Office is www.copyright.gov, an overview of copyright may be found at www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf, and the explicit discussion of the provisions of the copyright law is copyright.gov/fair-use.  Roughly speaking, the owner or licensee of the copyright to a book or other creation has the exclusive right to do certain things with that creation.  Section 106 of title 17 of the United States Code, as amended, tells what those things are.  For example, one of those things is the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted item.  Section 107 and some later sections list some exceptions, thus giving circumstances under which the copyright holder is not the only person with the right to do those things.  Section 107 discusses "fair use," which is what is relevant here.  Fair use is discussed at the website copyright.gov/fair-use.

Unfortunately there is no concrete definition of fair use.  Instead, fair use is a notion that grew out of common law and was enshrined in the U.S. copyright law only recently.  Thus past court decisions, especially at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court and the circuit courts of appeals, provide a number of examples of fair use and unfair use.  In a given situation a federal court has to decide whether or not a particular proposed exception is one of fair use.  In former times the court had to rely exclusively on precedents, but nowadays it also has the benefit of the general discussion of fair use in Section 107.

These matters are spelled out in a document called Circular 21, which is available at www.copyright.gov/circs/circ21.pdf.  Circular 21 concerns parts of title 17 of the United States Code, as amended.  Section 106 of title 17 says, "Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following."  Then follows a list of four things.  Section 107 provides that one limitation on exclusive rights is “fair use.”  “The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.  In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:
  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work."
For the notion of fair use in an educational setting, Circular 21 provides more specific guidelines.  Apparently these guidelines represent a truce establishing for educational institutions an area of permitted activity and an area of forbidden activity.  I shall not attempt to summarize these guidelines, but they are worth checking.

The website of the copyright office includes also a list of summaries of relevant court decisions.  This list is accessed from copyright.gov/fair-use/fair-index.html.  It is helpful to narrow the search, and one way to do that is to select only “Education/Scholarship/Research" as the category of decisions to search through.  One then gets summaries of approximately 46 decisions, most of them resulting in a finding of "fair use found" or else "fair use not found."  Reading some of the details of these gives one the flavor of borderline questions of fair use and the kind of reasoning that courts employ to decide such borderline questions.


Last modified: 1/4/2016