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Legal Eye: Personal use of e-books

  • Poland
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Although I’m an avid reader, I resisted e-books for a long time. After all, how could an electronic file compare with the feel and smell of paper, the ease of reference back (or of peeking ahead to the end) or the fun of browsing at a book store? My adventure with e-books began when a friend lent me a Kindle. For years, I had been borrowing books from her. She decided to go electronic, and it was time for me to try it, also.

Six months later, I’m perfectly happy reading an e-book. I’ve even tested the merits of reading on an iPad versus a Kindle.

As I build up my library, though, I am wondering what to do next. For a regular book, I could give or loan the book to someone else, put it on my bookshelf or throw it away. All of this is acceptable under copyright law. Electronic files, however, do not fall so neatly into rules built for a paper world.

Author’s rights

Copyright law was developed for an age of paper and pen. It attempts to create a balance between protection of an author’s rights in a book and allowing me, as the acquirer of a copy of a book, to make normal use of it.

Copyright grants an author certain exclusive rights over a work (such as a book). These include matters of personal pride, such as the right to claim authorship and to decide whether to publish. They also include material matters, such as the right to use the work and to receive money for that use. In general, these monetary rights last for 70 years following the death of an author.

Fair use

A number of carve-outs exist to an author’s rights to allow reasonable use by others. These “fair use” exceptions have become the battle ground in the digital world.

Polish copyright law contains a lengthy list of various fair use exceptions. Some are extremely specific, such as the use of the original building plans to reconstruct or repair a building and use of works by scientific and educational institutions for research or teaching purposes. Some are broad, such as an exception that allows you to use a work for your own personal use, such as reading for pleasure. Polish copyright law views the term “personal” as including your nearest and dearest, such as friends and relatives.

Once I own a copy of a regular book, under the fair use exception, I am free to do essentially as I please with my copy. Having read it, I can give it away, use it as a doorstop, or do almost anything else that strikes my fancy. Additionally, I may lend it to my friends for their reading enjoyment.

One of the main things that I can’t do with my copy of the book is to make new copies, although a few limited exceptions exist. Generally speaking, only the author may print new copies.

Sharing e-books

In a digital world, the lines become blurred. There are only a few places in copyright law in which distinctions have been made between the realities of the digital world and the paper world. Is an electronic file a “copy?” Can I lend my e-book to a friend?

Where the law is unclear, technology has stepped in. The e-books that I receive from official e-book stores contain technological restrictions on my ability to transfer those files. As an example, Kindle has a specific policy on lending e-books and has put technology in place to allow it. Under this policy, if a publisher allows it, I can lend a book to someone for 14 days. During this period, I can’t access this e-book.

Source: Judith Gliniecki, Warsaw Business Journal, 18th April 2011

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