I downloaded a book that does not have DRM (Digital rights management), I did not have to pay anything for it. Does this mean it is OK to give a copy of the book to my friend?

Note: This question is not a request for legal professional advice, and no answer to this question should be reguarded as legal advice. This question is a request for general advice about legal and ethical principles that cross jurisdictional boundaries.

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    I think in this case, even though the question is broad, we don't need to have 20 versions of the same question. I downloaded this book from somebooksite.com and it has license abc. Can I give a copy to my friend? Essentially, the important question is: Does DRM-Free mean copyright-free?. Answer: No. Heed the license.
    – Jason Down
    Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 16:45
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    @Matt_2.0 we have two answers that address the source and the licensing. Of the two so far I think Chad, has covered pretty much all the variables in his answer. Without a more detailed source in the question. Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 16:46
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    BTW, some of the close votes MAY have been because you used the completely undefined term "OK". OK from legal standpoint? Ethical? (e.g. it may be ethically wrong but you won't be prosecutable).
    – DVK
    Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 17:50
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    @DVK, I was thinking the OK, covered both the legal and ethical views, I think both apply in this case. Chads answer seems to address both also. Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 17:54
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    If the book is available for free, it would be logical to assume you can redistribite it. In any case, it depends on your legal system not on the wishlist text given by the distribitor.
    – user43
    Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 20:43

10 Answers 10



Every eBook is released under a licence. Even if there is no licence specifically identified then it is covered under the general copyright law. If you purchased the book and it was not released under a licence that permits redistribution then you should assume that giving away copies to friends is forbidden.

Generally you can find the licence that the book was released under listed in the first few pages of the book, usually before any of the main content. There are some licences that permit redistribution either for a fee or not. Most licencing restricts distribution to those people who have a specific distribution licence and pay the appropriate royalties and fees to the publisher and author.

There is some question about older books that are public domain. The content of the book(the text) is the only thing that is public domain. The Ebook has added markup and is covered under copyright laws as a new creation. You can still use the public domain content as permitted, but the markup and any images included that are not public domain images are covered.

Also just because you are in a country that may not enforce copyright and licencing from the country of origin, does not mean that the copyright does not exist. In real world terms, think of it as an analogy to walking down a street and seeing a house that has no door lock. Is it OK to enter the house and take anything in it, just because there's no door lock preventing you from doing so? No. And even if the police will not arrest you that does not mean that it is acceptable to do so.

  • This sounds quite much US-centered... Just theoretically, what if you are a Chilean and while in Tobago, getting a book from Lithuania originally written in 1612 (somewhere) and digitized by an unnoted contributor?
    – n611x007
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 11:28
  • @naxa not it is general, copyright is in most countries and you have to know what it is and abide by it. In your case it i probably OK as the date is so old, but otherwise does the digitiser have the right to do that, etc.
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 11:51
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    @naxa - In most places the burden falls upon the person wishing to distribute the book to determine the status of copyright and licencing. Just because it is an old book in the public domain does not mean that the Ebook creation is also in the PD. Just because no one is going to come after you for it does not mean that it is legal or acceptable to distribute the book.
    – Chad
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 5:01
  • @Chad I crafted my example in order to accumulate several of the corner cases. the 1600s should predate copyright in most places iirc, the unnoted digitiser is one who fails to understand or comply with the notion of providing a license for the Ebook-creation, and cross-borders and ambiguity provided to include international relations... I don't know how much actually the world's legislation or morals in these matters conform the US state of affairs. any comparative reference would be highly appreciated in these regards! the latter topic still doesn't cover the cross-border problem.
    – n611x007
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 14:17
  • @naxa re cross border = it depends where you are - not the source, unless your nationality is of a county that has relevant laws that apply when you are in a different country.And of course when you go to another country then that country's copyright applies
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 0:26

Drm-Free doesn't necessarily mean copyright-free. If the book is licensed as such that it is available freely to anyone, then you are allowed to make copies. If there is some license or terms of usage attached to the book that suggests it is not free to distribute, then you are not allowed to make copies and give it away.


Adding some rationale to the existing answers:

A common reason an author/publisher would not want you copying even a free ebook is that even "free" sales boost the book's number and visibility. An ebook the author gives away freely to 1,000 readers is better for him than giving it to 1 person who then emails it to 1,000 friends.

If the book is still available for free, the best thing to do is send your friends the link. They get the book, and everything's A-OK.

  • Good point, If you enjoyed the work enough to share it. The very least you can do, is let the author take credit for additional readers, via download counts. Commented Dec 25, 2013 at 10:59
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    This is not necessarily true - see Baen's Free Library and Cory Doctorow;s books they do not care how their free books are distributed, all they want is that it is distributed. They get the money by if you like it you go and buy it
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 11:48
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    @Mark: Very true. That should all be in the license, either way.
    – Standback
    Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 16:11

the only case in which you may legally copy an ebook and pass to a friend of yours is when (a) there is a "copyright" (in a broad sense of the term), and (b) the copyright says you may freely distribute the ebook (because it is in the public domain, or is published under a Creative Commons license). If there is no copyright at all, you should suppose that all rights are reserved.


That depends.

In copyright law of practically every country in the world, a book automatically falls under copyright, even if no license information is present. The right to copy is exclusively granted to the author, with a few exceptions such as the right to cite and in some countries the right to fair use.

The rights on a book don't have to belong to the author, though. For example, the author may have chosen to transfer (some) of the rights to a publisher.

The copyright may have expired

However, copyright doesn't last eternal. (A few lifetimes, but not forever.) If enough time has expired from the moment of publication, the book is now in the public domain and may be used freely. An example would be the works of Jules Verne.

Of course, those books weren't originally published as eBooks, but in many countries if something is an accurate reproduction without changes to the content this would not make it copyrightable because of a lack of originality.

The book might placed in the public domain

The owner of the copyrights on the book may have chosen to place the book in the [public domain]. In that case, you can freely share the book.

The copyright owner might have granted you the right to share the book.

Look for information about the copyright. Besides information in the book itself (usually found at one of the first few pages), you could look for license information at the web site where you downloaded the book.

A few licenses commonly used for content the author wants to be shared are the GFDL and all the Creative Commons licenses.

The laws of your country may allow you to share the book

Some countries may allow books to be shared with family, for educational purposes etc. It depends on what country you live in. You will have to consult with someone familiar with the laws of your country that are applicable, or look it up yourselves.

You are not allowed to share it

If none of the above is the case, you're not allowed to share the book legally. Whether it's morally okay is something you'd probably best answer yourselves.


You need to check the "copyright" or the "terms of use" documentation provided by the platform you obtained the free ebook.

Example from Google Play Terms of Service:

6. Rights and Restrictions

License to Use Products. Following payment of the applicable fees for a Product, you will have the non-exclusive right, for the period selected by you in the case of a purchase for a rental period, and in other cases for as long as Google and the applicable copyright holder have rights to provide you that Product, to download or stream, in each case, solely as expressly permitted by Google via the Play user interface and subject to the restrictions set forth in these Terms and associated policies, copies of the applicable Product to your Devices, and to view, use, and display the Product on your Devices or as otherwise authorized by Google as part of the Service for your personal, non-commercial use only. All rights, title and interest in Google Play and Products not expressly granted to you in these Terms are reserved by Google and its licensors.


Sale, Distribution or Assignment to Third Parties. You may not sell, rent, lease, redistribute, broadcast, transmit, communicate, modify, sublicense or transfer or assign your rights to Products to any third party without authorization, including with regard to any downloads of Products that you may obtain through Google Play. Use of any tool or feature provided as an authorized part of Google Play (for example, “Social Recommendations”) shall not violate this provision so long as you use the tool as specifically permitted and only in the exact manner specified and enabled by Google.


Per your mention in chat in regards to Creative Commons Licence, it doesnt matter, if you agree to the site's terms that you will not transfer or pass around content than you aren't supposed to. That said I agree with Jason that your question leads towards I have this ebook from this site can I give a copy to my friend and that's not something we need or is in scope.

Coming from a design background, even if I give a site free access to download my work, or even put it on my site I include in the file that this is not for distribution by any means which is common. To add to that I am pretty sure sites would have that clause that you are not allowed to do so because it harbors good faith for handling a publisher's/author's content.

  • This looks like it licensing for the device, not the book. ebooks without DRM are device insensitive. Copyright is defined by the author, not the vendor (excepting Amazon of course). Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 16:53
  • If you click on any book, scroll to the bottom, and click " Site Terms of Service" this is the Google Play Terms of Service in regards to all their content on their site. Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 16:55
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    Copyrights are often a publisher's wishlist not a legal statement. For example in Poland distributor were forbidding the buyers to give, resell or borrow the music or game to other people, but such restrictions contradicted the civil law and therefore were void.
    – user43
    Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 20:46
  • @Gramps There would appear to be a conflict between Google's conditions and say Cory Doctorow's and I suspect lawyers might need to be involved but my feeling is that the publisher provides the book to Google on their conditions and so would override Google's. IANAL
    – mmmmmm
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 11:54

One ebook publisher, O'Reilly, explicitly states their rules in their terms and conditions, which are very different to the Google terms quoted above; which goes to prove that the answer to the original question depends on the terms under which you obtained the book.


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

But if you've been given a copy illegally by someone, you cannot then legally lend, resell or give it away; it's still illegal.

  • 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

Here is verbiage I put for the ebooks i publish:

All of Personville Press’s ebooks are copyrighted and generally do not allow indiscriminate sharing. No one at Personville is going to come chasing after you if you share your ebooks or reprint small passages on your website. We only ask that you be judicious about it. Want to share with a small handful of friends or family members? We’re not going to complain. But if you want to email it to 100 people or put it on your website for tens of thousands of people to download, that’s probably a different story. These ebook prices are kept low enough to make it affordable for anyone’s budget. All titles are lendable through Lendle, Booklending.com and Ebookfling. Personville Press enthusiastically supports these free services. If you received a free copy of the ebook from someone, we encourage you to purchase a digital copy anyway later on. That’s a good way to show that you support this author and independent publishing.

  • My verbiage raises the question about whether Amazon or ibooks have the right to override the publisher's own copyright terms. I seem to remember Cory Doctorow getting all riled about that a few years back, but I don't remember how he resolved it. Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 8:30

It depends on a huge number of factors like, country of origin, your country's take on copyright, what kind of licensing the book had, etc. If you didn't have to pay for it, was the publisher intending to promote the book? What kind of license did it have - There's actually a number of different licenses for different kinds of works: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_license

I would check the publishing website itself, for they usually have some explanation for what you can do with the book.

DRM-free ebooks is usually intended for people who want to read their product on different platforms (usually for each person). It doesn't normally say anything about the copyright, copyleft or any kind of licensing/sharing - for that is up to the creator of the work.


If you look only at the legal side, the answer is no, you can't give copies to a friend. And usually it should be easy enough for your friend to download a free copy himself, making it all legal. Would be different with a free movie that is a gigabyte download, but eBooks are usually quite small.

If you look at the ethical side, it's tricky. The author may try to get a commercial contract for his future books, so he wants to be able to say "my first novel had 100,000 free downloads, so you should pay me for the second one". Clearly you are interfering with this. There may be dozens of reasons why your action might hurt someone that I or you just didn't think of. So why not just do what is legal and ask your friend to download the book himself? If he doesn't have internet access, then I suppose downloading a second copy on his behalf would be fine.

  • Not sure how a movie would be different than a book. Is there some file size that changes the copyright law? Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 16:23

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