Copyright Law and E-books By

January 08,2020

Books have always fallen under standard copyright laws protecting written creative work. However, the advent of digital media and the e-book has given rise to a new set of intellectual property issues that are still being worked out today. E-books and print books share many of the same legal protections, but contain some key differences when it comes to sharing and copying policies. In this article, we explore the ways in which copyright law interacts with e-book management, and how that relationship can affect authors, publishers, and consumers.

Intellectual Property and Copyright

Copyright law is part of the larger world of intellectual property (IP) law. IP law governs such things as patenting, trademarks, and trade secrets in addition to copyrights.

Copyrights cover original creative work such as music, art, design, and writing. The original creator of a work holds a copyright to that work (and can register that copyright for increased recourse and legitimacy) until 70 years after their death, which means that no one else is allowed to reproduce, sell, or use the work without authorization. Copyrights are relatively easy to obtain as well, with a straightforward online application process and low fee compared to the counterpart patent costs.

Of course, there are limits to copyright restrictions. The fair use policy allows protected work to be used for educational or journalistic purposes. Additionally, the copyright holder can license their work for a fee or royalty percentage, or grant express permission for use if they desire.

This last point is especially concerning to authors and publishers of e-books. But how and why do e-books pose different problems from books in print?

Generally though, using copyrighted works can result in litigation and penalties, especially if profit is made or the original work is devalued because it becomes easy to access for free.

E-books and the First Sale Doctrine

In the days where books were only available in physical form, and PDFs were still decades down the road, copyright law dealt with books fairly simply.

A publisher could not, for instance, print and distribute works from an author without permission. Illegal copying and selling of books was also not as much of an issue. In order to reproduce and sell print works, the perpetrator would need to be in possession of a printing press, and invest significant money and effort per copy. Illegal printers were also relatively easy to track down by location for law enforcement.

However, the first sale doctrine establishes a legal standard for purchasers of books (and other works) to be able to lend, sell, and otherwise do with their specific purchased copy what they would like. According to J.D. Houvener, a Los Angeles Patent Attorney, this policy has a lot of positive aspects, but is often misconstrued.

"First sale is useful in cases where, say, a college student has to buy a really high-priced textbook for a class but wants to sell it to another student the semester after. It essentially enables recycling of value from one product. However, first-sale only applies to the initially purchased copy, and does not allow for reproduction."

This second point is key when it comes to the issues surrounding e-books. Digital books require almost no effort to reproduce and transport. Lending a book to a friend or family member means that you cannot be reading and using it at the same time, or lending it to ten or twenty friends, but "lending" an e-book becomes very close to copying it. In terms of the first sale doctrine, reselling an e-book should be allowed, but only if the seller then removes all traces of it from their possession once it has changed hands.

The problem with this is that it is very hard to verify that someone has transferred the e-book to someone else and can no longer access it, instead of merely having made a copy and distributing it (which would be a violation of copyright and the purchase agreement). So what can be done about this lack of traceability and ease of distribution?

Digital Rights Management

Digital rights management (DRM) presents at least a partial solution to issues of e-books and copyright law. DRM is technology that aims to protect copyrighted electronic media. Many different companies have their own versions of DRM that they use or partner with publishers and electronic media companies on, with some of the main players being Apple and Adobe.

When it comes to e-books, DRM can function in various ways. Consumers can store an e-book on multiple devices, for example, but may be limited to a certain number (six is a common one). In addition, DRM can enable resale and elimination of the original file.

Other DRM restrictions make copy-pasting and "screen-grabbing" nearly impossible when it comes to copyrighted material. More advanced DRM protections allow the tracking of illegal reselling and the locking down of files if they are opened on unauthorized devices.

DRM and the electronic media market are far from perfect at this point, however. Many protections are quite easy to circumvent, making much copyrighted material easily accessible on the internet. While most people who access illegal material online (such as free movie streams, music, or e-books) never even get penalized, harsh penalties befall others who get unlucky. DRM can be a hassle as well, needlessly restricting fair use at times, and disabling access for legitimate users when servers are down.

In Conclusion

The digital age has brought about massive changes in the way we create, consume, and share content. Often, traditional legal mechanisms fall behind in trying to catch up with these changes. E-books are a prime example of this, with standard copyright laws that governed print books for decades failing to deal with newfound problems. Although digital rights management systems have attempted to curb illegal sharing and selling of e-books, they often get in the way of legal use and fail to prevent determined individuals from doing what they please. As technology and legal doctrines continue to evolve, copyright law may look quite a bit different two decades from now.