I have scanned a few chapters of a textbook (about 10%) and I want to make the electronic files available to my classmates. The reason why I scanned the chapters initially was so that I could print them out and give it to a friend, and that is what I did.

The class of 93 people has an intranet with a chat room. I could ask them to email me of they are interested in getting the files. The folder size is large, so I would need to provide a link for them to download the files off, say, Google Drive, and Google gives the option of restricting the download to a specific person if they have a Gmail account. The other option is to post a download link on the chat room that could be used by anybody. Would that be legal and/or ethical? If I do share the files individually, would it be fine to send a link to an individual email that could be used by anybody? The students have access to the book in any case, at the library.

I understand that when my classmates share an entire textbook on the chat room in this way, it is illegal and unethical. But there is a finer line being drawn here because what I want to do is not dissimilar to sharing the files with one or two people.

  • 1
    When you share a file with 93 people, that is very dissimilar to sharing it with one or two people. Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 8:32
  • 1
    I'd have thought sharing with 1 person is technically illegal; the difference between sharing with 1 and sharing with 93 seems like merely a difference in magnitude of the offence. Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 9:19
  • You will get better answers if you write in which country you live. According to your profile this is South Africa. Legal situation may differ vastly depending on country!
    – Ariser
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 9:22
  • 2
    Which country are you in?
    – Raphael
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 9:55
  • @Raphael South Africa
    – ahorn
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 7:28

1 Answer 1


In the U.S. the key to this question is whether or not your use is considered fair use. Here is a link that explains more. In determining whether a use is considered fair use in U.S. copyright law, there are four factors:

  • Character of the use - If the use is personal or educational, it's more likely to be considered fair use than if it is commercial.
  • Nature of the work - If the material is factual and published, it's more likely to be considered fair use than if the material is artistic and/or unpublished.
  • Amount of the work - If you use a small amount of the work, or in the case where your use is transformative (you're not just making a copy) if you are careful not use an amount larger than what you need to achieve your purpose, it's more likely to be considered fair use.
  • Effect on the market for the original - If your use would be unlikely to affect the market for sale of the original work (even if it were widespread), it's more likely to be considered fair use. Factors that help: taking steps to prevent widespread distribution of the work, if the work is out of print or otherwise difficult to purchase, if the work is not available in the format you need (e.g. digital), if you are sharing a small part of the work, if your use is transformative, etc. (Here, the fact that the students already have access via the university's library, which owns a legal copy of the work, helps your case.)

There are no hard-and-fast rules; you have to use your judgement and weigh all four factors to make a determination. This link has several examples of common copyright-related scenarios in universities.

What I want to do is not dissimilar to sharing the files with one or two people.

The scenario in which you copy a small part of a factual published work for distribution to a very limited group of people for personal educational use, who can already access a legal copy owned by the university, and you take steps to prevent more widespread distribution, seems completely fine under U.S. copyright law, although IANAL.

However, distribution to a much larger group (almost 100 people in your class) changes things, because it shifts the balance of the fourth factor away from fair use.

(Again, all four factors are relevant. If you were copying a single page to share with the entire class, or if you were copying 10% to share with one study partner, it would be more defensible - but sharing 10% of a book with the entire class is less defensible.)

As a reference: this sample campus copyright statement says that "making multiple copies of articles or book chapters for distribution to classmates... would most likely not be considered fair use."

  • "Who anyways have access to the work"... what about when that's not true?
    – user541686
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 7:37
  • 2
    @Mehrdad There are no hard-and-fast rules, only factors that count "for" or "against" fair use, and "all the recipients already have legal access" is a factor "for." Every case needs to be evaluated separately with regard to the four factors.
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 7:39
  • "who anyways have access to the work" -- Everyone has access to every book through the Library of Congress if nowhere else, and every student at a quarter decent school has access to every textbook through their library. If this level of access were of any relevance, it would undermine all claims of copyright infringement.
    – user4512
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 7:44
  • @ChrisWhite I'm not sure what your point is, certainly "access" is a matter of degree (your comment sounds like a reductio ad absurdum argument.) The 4th factor is if the use affects the market for the work; whether or not they already have a legal copy of the work is relevant. (A similar argument comes up very often in the context of digital music, e.g. in the question of whether a user may circumvent DRM on a piece of music, it is highly relevant whether that user already has legal access to it in another form.)
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 8:03
  • It was an attempt at reductio ad absurdum, since the classmates here have pretty much the same access to the material as everyone else in the market (i.e. all students). We know copyright holds in the US, despite a public library tradition that predates the country. I'm reasonably sure, for instance, libraries can't generally purchase one book, scan it, and distribute the material to their members, so why should access to a library grant one that ability? But of course this is all minutiae in a hypothetical that will never be tried in court.
    – user4512
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 8:08

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