We are thinking about buying new textbooks for our students. Is there an established practice of buying digital copies of books for students? I expect that e-books should generally be cheaper and we might also be able to save money on delivery.

If the school were to purchase 10 copies of some particular title (e.g., this condensed matter physics book), would it be possible to loan these e-books to one set of students for some period of time (2 years), and later use the same licensed e-books for the next set of students?


I'm asking is it legal to give the same e-book file to multiple student generations, given that the particular licensed copy is only used by one student at a time.

If it is legal, I'm interesting in the established procedure for doing so. Are there any special considerations for different vendors or for different e-book formats?

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    This will depends on the country also. Many of the questions here implicitly assume the USA. It would be better to make that explicit.
    – Szabolcs
    Dec 11, 2014 at 18:54
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    @Szabolcs: I think it depends on the producer of the e-book: wither it allows you to some how share a file with students or not. I don't think country interfere with this.
    – Adobe
    Dec 11, 2014 at 19:37
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    Actually what is legal and what isn't depends on the laws of the country. The fact that a publisher doesn't want you to do something does not directly imply that it is illegal. There are many interesting examples in this article (which doesn't answer your question, just an interesting read).
    – Szabolcs
    Dec 11, 2014 at 20:37

5 Answers 5


One of the problems with how software is licensed, is it is not always clear when you are violating the EULA. After consultations with our library and IT department, we bought a large number of iPads that students can borrow from the school. We have loaded these iPads with a number of useful books, including our core textbooks. The IT and the library felt the issues with iPads were less than with lending the ebook directly or using laptops. The issue with laptops is that each user would generally have a separate and private account while for an iPad there is only one account. Your best bet is to talk to someone else and get them to sign off on it.

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    This is certainly an interesting way to be kept in mind. Dec 11, 2014 at 11:49
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    Neither librarians nor IT professionals are qualified to provide legal council. You should ask a lawyer instead.
    – Philipp
    Dec 11, 2014 at 17:12
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    @Philipp while I am not a lawyer, while the university may be at risk, I am pretty sure the risk to an employee is limited to negligence. Having IT and the library sign off on the plan, makes whoever is responsible in the department (and I am not sure who that would be) not negligent.
    – StrongBad
    Dec 11, 2014 at 17:32
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    Although I don't know about Apple's user agreement, this definitely not allowed under Amazon's (the ebook is owned by the buyer, not by the device, thus renting/distributing a kindle with the content would be the same as renting/distributing the ebook) Dec 11, 2014 at 18:23
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    @DavidMulder Might be different. We actually have a pretty full-featured e-library (books, journals, etc.).
    – earthling
    Dec 12, 2014 at 9:31

Generally speaking, when you purchase digital content, you are usually purchasing a license for said content. You will have to read the license to find out what the terms are. For example, here is the general license agreement for the Kindle store. It states that as a general rule:

Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Kindle Content or any portion of it to any third party

which would prohibit the scheme you suggest in the general case ("unless specifically indicated otherwise").

Similarly, for books sold in the Google Play store, the license terms include the following:

You may not lend or co-own any of your Books on Google Play purchases with another person.

The specific license terms can vary by content distributor, publisher, and individual book.

In cases where lending is permitted (e.g. some Kindle books), it's usually very restricted - for ordinary customers. Libraries can purchase licenses for some books that are more permissive for lending purposes. You should consult with your university librarians about what options are available to them.

You may be able to find an appropriate book for your purposes with a permissive license that allows lending (maybe even some open educational resources, if you're really lucky), but this will probably take some work.

  • I see -- buying e-books is not an option. But StrongBad has a nice workaround: if one buys a 10 iPads or Kindles (cheaper!), and buys e-books for each device, one can lend a device to a student for a whole period of study.
    – Adobe
    Dec 11, 2014 at 11:29
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    But libraries (more or less routinely) acquire licenses for electronic content. AFAIK these are special licenses, not the same as the end user license (if you hand out the content, you're not an end user after all). Dec 11, 2014 at 11:51
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    @Adobe Although I don't know about Apple's user agreement, this definitely not allowed under Amazon's (the ebook is owned by the buyer, not by the device, thus renting/distributing a kindle with the content would be the same as renting/distributing the ebook) Dec 11, 2014 at 18:23

My guess is that your best chance is to do this via your library (not as institute).

Here's is a localized answer for ebooks and libraries for Germany:

Source: http://www.bibliotheksportal.de/themen/digitale-bibliothek/e-books-in-bibliotheken.html

  • The UrhG (German copyright law) has explicit rules for content on physical media. Besides printed books this also covers CDs and DVDs.
    Roughly speaking the idea is that a library is allowed to lend out books on physical media. The loss of the publisher because of a larger number of readers for the book is compensated by a so-called "Bibliothekstantieme" ("library royalty").

  • The problem with ebooks is that they are not covered by those "physical" library rules. This means that libraries negotiate individual licensing contracts with the publishers.

  • The university library ebooks I've used so far were restricted to reading from university IPs, some even to computers at the library. Look&feel of the procedure were similar to electronic journal access.
    Talk to your university library, I'm sure they know how to deal with that. They'll probably also be able to give rough guesstimates about the costs.

  • There exist public e-libraries, e.g. Onleihe is an network for ebooks of public libraries mainly in the German speaking countries. They know for sure how to deal with this, and something the like probably also exists in your country.

    The mode of this is described (I haven't tried it personally) as very similar to traditional library use: there is a number of copies available, if they are all lent out you have to wait until one is "returned". You get access for a restricted time and then the reading license is returned and you cannot open the book any longer.


To know whether the device workaround is legal, you need to figure out if the ebook license is owned by the individual or the account.

If it is owned by the individual making the purchase, it should be able to be transferred to a different account. If losing access to an account (on Amazon or Kindle or whatever) also loses you access to a license that is purchased and owned, then it belongs to the account. Not you. Giving the account to someone else to use should not count as distribution as long as the written material isn't copied, emailed, printed, etc.) However, you would need a lawyer regardless of what you do. Laws are just chess pieces businesses use to play for the most amount of money possible. You need your own chess player to protect your interests.


The situation may have changed in the last five or so years since the question was asked. But, currently, in the US, libraries are able to make agreements with some publishers for just this purpose. There are limits in the agreements, as you would expect. I don't know if the limits would make it hard to lend a title for a complete term. Most library lending is for a couple of weeks, but there are exceptions.

Have a local library explore this with publishers.

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