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I have found a website which contains a lot of books available to download for free. This seems to be both legal and illegal stuff.

How to know whether this website illegal? If I download books from such a website would I be violating some Law? Could I have jail?

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closed as off-topic by Federico Poloni, waiwai933, mkennedy, Nate Eldredge, Peter Jansson Apr 22 at 18:08

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Yes, it's illegal. No, you won't go to jail. I am not a lawyer, and I am certainly not your lawyer. –  JeffE Apr 22 at 14:54
This question appears to be off-topic because it is not specifically about academia (boat programming question). –  Federico Poloni Apr 22 at 16:05
It's not really a boat programming question. And the original question was a bit more nuanced: the site has both legal (public domain) and illegal material available. –  aeismail Apr 22 at 18:20
@FedericoPoloni I voted to reopen. I don't think that is is a "boat programming" question. First, other professions won't ask about (academic) books (yet law may be different for such to law for music, films or software). Second, some copyright issues work differently when the content is used for educational or research purposes. –  Piotr Migdal Apr 22 at 18:23
@Anupam I was checking that myself, too, out of curiosity. In my personal opinion the correct place to ask this would be a Law SE site; unfortunately, there is none as of now (see discussion). –  Federico Poloni Apr 24 at 6:14

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Simply, you can't. If it is an illegal website, the owners will not tell you that it is illegal. They will tell you it is legal. If it is legal website, the owners will tell you that it is legal. In the end, the only answer you can get is that it is legal.

What you can do is that instead of treating the website as a whole, treat the books individually. You can check whether they are in public domain or not, since an illegal website can have both kind of books. It comes down to trusting the websites or doing your homework about those books you are interested in.

If you download books from those sites, depending on your country, it can be illegal or not. Your country should have some laws about copyrights. Most likely, it is illegal because it is stealing.

If you have not commited any crime before, you usually don't go to jail but repetition of such crimes can result in jailtime, again depending on the country. However, there isn't any action on downloaders of digital properties in most of the countries. I know that Germany took action once on people that downloaded movies, but that was it. Countries, if they are going to bother, bother with owners of such websites. The possiblity of you being caught is infinitely small.

I should also probably note that illegal websites are very easy to notice. It shouldn't take more than a minute to clearly see that it is illegal. Websites with latest novels, or many coursebooks are surely illegal.

People who want to safely download digital properties for free usually use proxies or TOR to stay anonymous.

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-1 for using the word "stealing". Illegally downloading $\neq$ stealing; the main difference is that after you steal a car, the owner does not have it anymore. –  Federico Poloni Apr 22 at 16:03
@FedericoPoloni the definition of stealing is not up to you. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/steal The quantity does not necessarily decrease after the action of stealing. –  Kogesho Apr 22 at 16:05
In addition, in most jurisdictions, copyright infringement is not a crime. –  Federico Poloni Apr 22 at 16:20

In principle, e-book repositories are not necessarily illegal. However, those sites are responsible for ensuring that their content is legal to distribute, and that they're not infringing on copyright.

If you are using this site to download only works that are already in the public domain, you have not committed any criminal actions. My understanding of copyright law (note: I am not a lawyer!) is that it is up to the copyright holder to take action against copyright violators. So downloading unauthorized content is unlikely to result in you being arrested—but you could be sued.

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@Anupam I am unsure how you got that from "(...) is unlikely to result in you being arrested — but you could be sued." I think the sentence is pretty explicit that it is not ok to download books from such a site. –  xLeitix Apr 22 at 13:51
@Anupam: I am very much against the modern copyright system—it's gotten to the point where it's actively hurting research and education. However, my disagreement with the system doesn't give me the right to violate it. –  aeismail Apr 22 at 14:10
@Anupam: In general, you need to know the creator of the material (for books, the author). The specific span of copyright depends on country: in India, it appears to be the life of the author plus 60 years. So if the author died 60 or more years ago (right now, before 1954), then the work is considered in the public domain. –  aeismail Apr 22 at 14:36
However, my disagreement with the system doesn't give me the right to violate it. — To clarify, your disagreement with the system doesn't give you the legal right to violate it; your moral and ethical rights are a separate matter. –  JeffE Apr 22 at 14:53
those sites are responsible for ensuring that their content is legal to distribute, and that they're not infringing on copyright They may be responsible for obeying the laws of their country. They are not responsible for obeying the laws of the country that the downloader lives in. If you are using this site to download only works that are already in the public domain,[...] There are also many books out there whose authors have intentionally made them free to download, even though they're not public domain. I maintain an online catalog of such books at theassayer.org. –  Ben Crowell Apr 22 at 19:10

Ok, here are the things I would check first:

  • If the books available on the site overlap greatly with the books available on project Gutenberg you're probably in the green. Project Gutenberg digitalizes public domain books and there is a chance you have stumbled on another project which digitizes books in a more specific domain.
  • If the site seems to be affiliated with the publisher of the books in question and all books come from the same (or a small set of) publisher(s) you're probably in the green.
  • If the site is affiliated with a university and the books are not published by this university or by employees/students of this university this is a big red flag, as in general these books are not meant for public access and are often illegally (sometimes with permission) shared by a professor with his students.
  • If the books available on the site are in general available for sale on other sites that's a Big Red Flag. True, old classics can be bought as hard cover books and even some old classics are sold as ebooks (despite being for free on Gutenberg), but none the less in general this should be a big big warning sign.
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What I frequently hit upon (when legitimately looking for a book sale site) is a book being stored without proper firewalling. Specifically, a school or business might have a legitimate copy and even the right to share it among employees, but access isn't properly denied to outsiders. The site may be legal, the storing may be legal, but the lack of security suggests that it's not intended for you to visit and download.

Alternatively, there are countries that don't abide by international copyright laws. You should respect the laws of your own country to avoid an issue.

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