The question If a book doesn't have DRM does that mean it is OK to give a copy to my friend to read? has answers implying that without permission there are legal and ethical hurdles in giving away a copy of an ebook. In the United States, there are stores selling used books, which are under copyright.

As Harvard Law School buys back used text books, presumably with the intent of resale, it is probably safe to assume the action is not illegal, in the US.

It seems that selling or giving away your copy of a print book that is under copyright is a not a problem, so how is that different than doing then passing on your only copy of an ebook, assuming you delete the existing copy on your device?

3 Answers 3


There are a couple of key legal differences between print books and ebooks:

  • First, ebooks generally are not purchased, they are licensed. If you "buy" an ebook from Amazon, you don't actually own it--you're just allowed to use it.
  • Second, there's the First Sale Doctrine. This is what allows owners to sell print books when they're done with them. At present, it's unclear whether the first sale doctrine applies to digital goods, but the courts seem to be leaning away from letting it, meaning that selling your ebooks when you're done with them is not likely to happen. There's a good writeup on this available here: https://library.osu.edu/blogs/copyright/2013/04/23/the-first-sale-doctrine-and-the-sale-of-digital-goods-in-light-of-kirtsaeng-and-redigi-inc/. A relevant excerpt (talking about reselling digital music files, but probably indicative of thoughts about ebooks as well) is:

Capitol Records brought suit against ReDigi on the grounds of copyright infringement. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York held that ReDigi’s website infringed Capitol Record’s rights of reproduction and distribution, and that the distribution of the digital music files was not covered by the first sale doctrine. The court reasoned that the process of creating a copy of the work on ReDigi’s cloud server was an unauthorized reproduction (the first sale doctrine applies only to lawfully made copies that are distributed, not reproduced) and that because an additional copy was made for the server, users did not distribute or sell the particular copy that they had originally purchased.

As much as we may think they are basically the same thing, ebooks and print books are quite different in a number of ways, and we're still all figuring out the nature of those differences, let alone how to deal with them. It may well be that the entire business model changes enough that the first sale doctrine becomes irrelevant to ebooks—if ebook subscription services become the primary method of distribution, for example.

  • Let's not let the lawyers confuse us. Printed and 'e' books are exactly the same thing, except the medium. It's the lawyer's job to make them different, so they can take rights away from you, the book owner. Why does an ebook cost so much? There's no distribution network, shipping or printing costs! I'd say do what ever your heart tells you is right and moral. It may be against the lawyer's 'rules', you may get sued, but at least you did what was right and true to yourself. You still might get sued even when you follow the rules - if a lawyer wants to interpret the rules 'his way'. Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 19:22
  • Sorry for the rant! I just have no respect for the legal system. Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 19:23

One ebook publisher, O'Reilly, explicitly states their rules in their terms and conditions.


You can legally lend, resell or give away your O'Reilly ebook, as long as you don't retain a copy of it.

  • I like this answer, but I believe it is still important to consider the law of the country/state you live in. Their licensing summary may or may not be an accurate representation of the law in California, but that does not make it the law where you live. Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 11:37

A print book is a physical object, if I give it to you, I will be left without any book.

An ebook is a file, not a physical object, and if I give it to you, I still can keep it for myself as well; to copy a file does not require to delete the original one, unless I explicitly want to do so.

It is easy to see that if I buy a printed book and give it to you, there is no need for a law that says that I can't still keep it for myself, since it's impossible (of course there are other ways to copy it, i.e. photocopying it, but it will be an analogical copy, I will end with a totally different physical object).
But with a file, if the legislators want to prevent me to share digital copies of it (perfectly identical to the original in every single byte, so in a certain sense they ARE the original file), they must make some legal constraints to my ability to copy it, since in this case I won't have any physical one.

P.S. Please note that I'm only stating some factual considerations, and that I'm not making any argument both in favour or against file-sharing, copyright laws, DRMs, and so on.

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