Something I have noticed in my courses over the years is that in addition to all the online distributions of textbooks (which I understand to be mostly illegal), I can often times find universities posting sections of books online, particularly just the exercises. Doesn't this violate the same copyright law?

Here are some examples of what I am referring to from books I have studied from in the past.

Do Carmo, Differential Geometry of Curves and Surfaces

Here is a solution manual to about half of Brown and Churchill's book in complex analysis (sections of the book itself can be found as well, and it may be worth noting that this is not the university the authors were associated with, I don't know).

There are other examples from other pretty well known texts in mathematics.

How is this legal for universities to do? Do they need to consult the publisher or something first?

  • 3
    Depends on the country. Laws differ around the world.
    – A E
    May 13, 2015 at 9:56
  • 4
    Important note: this looks like an individual academic posting it online using their university website, not USACH posting it (eg through a repository). The university may or may not know about this and may or may not have an opinion, but "they" aren't doing it. May 13, 2015 at 10:25
  • 1
    In the US, fair use may apply. Legalities aside, I can see obvious reasons that people would do what you're describing. The primary one would be that textbook publishers try as hard as possible to kill off the used book market, and one of the sleaziest ways they have of doing this is to bring out new editions every couple of years, with the only change being renumbering of the homework problems.
    – user1482
    May 14, 2015 at 22:50
  • The second link is not (any more?) what you say it is.
    – Carsten S
    May 26, 2017 at 8:53

2 Answers 2


First of all, copyright infringement on this scale, which is not done for financial gain (in most common law countries) is not illegal but unlawful. The difference between these two things is that illegal behavior can lead to punishment, whereas unlawful behavior is simply not protected by law - if you are doing something lawful, you are protected from someone seeking redress. If someone seeks redress from you because you have distributed their copyright work, you cannot argue that your behavior was permitted by law.

With this in mind, it's not necessarily an important question whether or not your university is doing something which infringes copyright. In theory, everything is either lawful or unlawful, legal or illegal, with nothing in between. In practise, the only person who might reasonably be able to determine this is a judge (assisted by several lawyers). Partly because the time of judges and lawyers is costly, whole areas of human behavior exist in gray areas which are not in anyone's best interest to resolve one way or the other.

People break the law all the time. Some laws are never enforced, and some laws are unenforceable. Everyone is familiar with urban myths about various commonplace things such as Christmas pudding, or kissing on a Sunday being illegal in various jurisdictions, other practices such as outdoor nudity or urination being technically legal although they might be expected to lead to arrest, and yet further things such as weekly archery practice being required by law. Some of these stories are completely true, by the letter of the law. Large organizations such as Apple and Microsoft agree on wide-ranging 'patent swaps' rather than try to figure out who is infringing whom. Doubtless any organization as large as a university is constantly breaking some law or other, if you include building codes, employment regulations, health and environmental restrictions, tax codes, immigration requirements, etc. Probably lots of people are employed to do nothing except check that the university meets the regulations, but these people are constantly playing catch-up to new rules, as well as trying to make sure that the thousands of people working within the institution are obeying the internal policies which call for compliance to the law, rather than disregarding them (as they usually are).

Now, most academic publications are both written by academics and mainly bought by them, as well as by academic libraries. Academics are paid by universities to do research which includes the writing of books, and while lots of textbook publishers are corporations, some belong to universities, or work in joint ventures with universities. Thus publishers, authors, editors and readers of these books together with university organizations form a community. For publishers to spend their time trying to investigate instances of copyright infringement like the one you mentioned, would be the equivalent of you constantly remeasuring the borders of your backyard, trying to determine the exact boundary line ever more precisely, asking your neighbours to tear down fences and re-erect them a few inches over, and snipping the branches of plants which overlapped by a small amount. While your legal right, it would be very detrimental to the community, in this case the community of people who live in your neighbourhod, of which you are part. It would also be a huge waste of your time, for little or no benefit.

Far more important than legality is the question of ethical behavior. Unlike the law, one is not expected to attempt to conform as best one can, but to behave completely ethically, and make it clear that one is behaving ethically, at all times. The flip side of this is that you cannot behave unethically by accident, or without your own knowledge.

For a textbook publisher to reprint (say) a complete collection of one academic's papers which were published on her website, without notifying her or asking her approval, would be completely unethical, even if they were stated to be in the public domain. Similarly, it would be unethical for that academic to turn her university homepage into a site called 'FreeTextbookz' with a large collection of files and paid banner advertising. Many things which fall in between this are accepted by consensus of the community as being benign or trivial.

  • 2
    Your post is very good and your points are still valid, but I feel your examples with the crazy urban myth laws are a bit skewed. Most (if not all) of them are actually not a law, because they are overruled but other more important laws (lets say a state law, which is less important than federal law or even a constituional amendment). So people (legislation) is basically just too lazy to remove these laws from their books - But this doesn't mean it is still an active law. However, your points still holds as there are in fact many laws which we break at a regular basis.
    – dirkk
    May 13, 2015 at 13:22
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    A little off topic, but some jurisdictions do have laws under which certain types of copyright violation are a criminal offense, punishable by fines or imprisonment. For instance, under US law (which I understand is generally considered to be based on common, rather than civil, law), we have 17 USC 506 and 18 USC 2319. I think that would shift it from "unlawful" to "illegal" in your terminology. But I am not a lawyer. May 13, 2015 at 14:31
  • 1
    You are right @NateEldredge, editing.
    – jwg
    May 13, 2015 at 16:31

In ordinary language usage copyright infringement (such as you describe) is illegal, specifically it is a civil tort, not a crime (except in the US when the infringement passes the $1000 threshold). In the Beck et al link, posting the book is not infringement since the would-be infringer and copyright holder are the same. In the case of the exercises that you linked, we (at least, I) cannot tell -- is the "host" the author, or does he have permission to post the exercises? This may not constitute infringement.

I do know (from having been violated, myself) that some faculty arrogate to themselves the right to claim the right to freely distribute other people's creations. The remedy in individual cases is for the copyright-holder to file a take-down request, but that requires specific knowledge of the infringement, and often, stolen books are only accessible from behind a pay wall. But also note that these items were not posted by the university, they were posted by people with an affiliation with the university. As such, the university deserves moral blame only if they have willfully tolerated copyright violations. For the most part, universities are diligent (albeit rather ineffective) at combating blatant copyright infringement, though many do play rather fast and loose with "course reserves" and the concept of fair use.

  • 2
    Note that even in cases where copyright infringement is a crime, it is not theft. There is no legal basis for describing a scan of a book posted on a website as 'stolen'.
    – jwg
    May 13, 2015 at 16:30
  • 1
    That was a moral judgment.
    – user6726
    May 13, 2015 at 16:32

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