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E-Book Readers and Copyright Laws

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What is an E-book Reader?

An E-book Reader, or electronic book reader, is an electronic device that displays books on a digital screen instead of on standard paper print. The text of the book is stored on a digital file, which the device then converts into a readable form for display. A digital copy of a book is called an “e-book.”

Consumers can usually purchase individual e-books at a price that is cheaper than the paper print version. E-books are typically purchased online through the internet, and then downloaded into an e-book reader for personal use. E-book distribution sometimes resembles a rental service, with consumers purchasing or using e-books on a subscription basis. 

There are numerous e-book readers available on the market but they all operate on the same basic principles. While some consider e-book readers to be a new format, they are still subject to basic laws governing copyrights. 

How do copyright laws apply to e-book readers?

Basic copyright laws apply to e-book readers. This means that only the holder of a book copyright is authorized to reproduce or distribute the book. Usually the copyright holder of a book is the author. Thus, many authors will work through a publishing company to distribute their books in an e-book format. 

Publishing companies and manufacturers of e-book readers must still obtain authorization from a copyright holder if they intend to sell or reproduce copyrighted material through e-books. Unauthorized publication of a copyrighted book through an e-book reader can result in legal consequences, such as a copyright infringement claim. 

The first sale doctrine also applies to e-book readers and e-book files. According this doctrine, once a copyrighted book is sold, the copyright holder loses their distribution rights, and the new owner can then distribute the work. Thus, if a book is sold in an e-book format, the purchaser can then transfer the file to another person. 

There are several federal laws governing the specific details of e-book copyright. A few examples of such laws are the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the No Electronic Theft Act. Consult with an attorney for more details on such laws.

What can I do to protect my copyrighted literary material?

An author obtains a copyright automatically once their ideas are expressed in a tangible form. Once a draft is written down, the material is automatically copyrighted. The author retains the copyright even if a digital copy of the book is made. The copyright ensures that the author has exclusive rights over their work, especially with regards to distribution and reproduction of the work. 

Issues can arise when the book is reproduced electronically without the copyright holder’s consent. Perhaps the most important step for an author to take is to register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration is required for certain actions, such as filing a copyright infringement lawsuit or using the copyright as evidence in a court of law. Registering your copyright can provide evidence that you are the owner of the rights to the book. 

If you are working with a publisher, you may wish to deal with e-book issues in a specific contract. Be sure to spell out in detail your preferences with regards to e-book copyright issues such as reproduction and distribution. 

E-book technology is relatively new, and the body of laws governing the field of digital communications is still in its early stages. A well-drafted contract can prevent many disputes over copyrights that may not be anticipated by digital rights management laws. 

Do copyright infringement laws apply to e-book readers?

Yes, copyright holders can file a lawsuit for infringement through e-book readers. They will usually be required to prove that the defendant had access to their work, and that the work is sufficiently similar to the copyrighted material. However, the book must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office before filing an infringement lawsuit.

Should I contact a lawyer for a copyright issue involving e-book readers?

Laws governing e-book readers and copyrights can be extraordinarily complex. This is due to the fact that the technology is new and is also constantly being updated. You should consult with a lawyer if you feel that your rights under copyright protections have been violated. Also, if you plan to write a book, you may wish to work with an attorney in order to avoid possible disputes over e-book distributions. 
Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 07-16-2013 09:54 AM PDT

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