What Are The Ethics Of Scanning And Posting Old Books?

I have a question and need some education, so I’m looking for input. What are the ethics of posting digitized versions of old books online? Is there an ethical difference between a book that is still under copyright, but is impossible to find, as opposed to a book where the copyright has run out? I realize there are legal differences, but I’m interested in the ethics.

I’ve spent more than 25 years chasing down old books on bushcraft and wilderness living. Some of them from my collection have been digitized by others and are available online for free now. Many of the more obscure ones are not.

People on our courses always ask if they can have copies of the ones I’ve scanned, and I have given them away via external hard drive, but have always stayed away from posting them. Partly because I don’t want to get sued, and partly because I don’t know the ethics.

I have immense respect for the authors who wrote them. I wouldn’t want to do something (like post their work) that would negatively impact them or their descendants.

But I know there are people out there who are hungry for the knowledge, and who would benefit from the time and money I spent searching out these old books.

Obviously if it’s in print, or out of print but easily found, it doesn’t count for my question. But what if it’s out of print 20 years and the few print copies available are hundreds of dollars?

What do you think?


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Samson Racioppi

    I think that in the case of old, out of print and hard to find books, you are doing a service by sharing the information. If a book is hundreds of dollars due to how rare it is, the author isn’t receiving that money, the store who happened to find that rare book is.

    If I was the author of a rare book and someone wanted to share the knowledge contained within it, I would be proud that someone feels that way. In a way you are helping immortalize those authors.

    I think it would be ethically wrong if someone tried to capitalize on those writings though (of course.)

  • This is a sticky one for sure. I would think that if you can’t find it anymore and you find a copy at the thrift store and you digitize it then it’s your work for you and we have established that’s not a bad thing. If you use it in a post and make sure the author is well represented then again I don’t think that’s a bad thing because you’re sharing knowledge. BUT if you stick it online, that’s where I would have the problem, and the reason being is because it’s a slippery slope you play on, first it’s books you can’t find then it turns into books that are hard to find, then all your books are on there. It’s easy why not right? I think sharing it with your students to some degree, example a good chapter on fire, but not the whole book is even acceptable. I worry that people that can get there hands on stuff they were too lazy to look for will then spread that info as their own, and there are a lot of posers on the net, and some are smarted with a computer then they are with an axe. We need to weed out the weak so that people don’t get hurt from great knowledge taught with no skill, and making it easier for these guys to find it only makes it worse in my eyes. Remember once it’s on the net it can never come off. I would love to see the collection Mors Kolchanski has, but I don’t have that much time in my life to do that. So in closing I suggest keep those gems to yourself, you have more then enough skills to know when to use them, and don’t let the posers have it from your hard work.

    Cheers and Merry Christmas

  • Bruce Feldman

    1. If I take your car, I deny you the use of it; if I take your knowledge (directly or through an intermediary or medium) you can still use it and have incurred no loss. I find, then, that file sharing is not at all the same as stealing. 2. The claim that publishers lose money from digitized copying is not a real, or realized, loss at all, it’s simply an “opportunity cost.” One would have to argue that everyone who copies a book would otherwise have bought the book, something that is obviously untrue. 3. It has been demonstrated that file sharing can often increase the “buzz” surrounding a work and actually add to revenues to publishers in the long run. 4. Where do you choose to draw the line: if your wife asks to borrow a book from you would you let her? How about your friend? Student? Next door neighbor? Neighbor two doors down? Three streets away? Shared digitally with a parent in another state? A friend or acquaintance? Torrent peer? Strictly speaking, each of the above is arguably (though unenforceably) a copyright infringement. Personally, I would not hold knowledge hostage for ransom to any hungry mind that seeks it.

  • Thanks Bruce. Good food for thought. Puts things in perspective and differentiates the legal from the ethical.

  • Thanks Brian. I’ve stayed away from posting things online up to this point for many of the reasons you cite. The purpose of this post was to see if it’s time to change my mind. Look like the answer is a no.

  • Definitely wrong to try to profit or capitalize, Sam. I agree that it could be seen as providing a positive service to the community, but Brian’s point about the slippery slope of posting it online balances that perspective to me. No simple answers, in my mind anyway.

  • Derek Faria

    Not an easy topic at all. I like how you cared more about ethical than legal here, though both instances are not good concerning this question you posed.
    I would say don’t even put yourself in that situation and unfortunately for “the whole” keep them to yourself. There are ways to share the knowledge, and at a very minimum, you could simply recommend the books as you have before. If people can magically find them, good for them. If not, at least you tried and didn’t put anything on the line character wise, or legally.

  • Derek Faria

    Great picture by the way!

  • I love the picture. Tom took it, in his yard, of my wedge tent.

  • Thanks Derek. I definitely don’t want to get into any trouble for posting stuff. My point with this question is, where is the line? If I have a book that’s 68 years old, there are none for sale anywhere so no one can read it, etc., is it OK to post a scanned version? The feedback I’m getting is telling me no. And from my perspective, it’s easier to not post anything because by doing nothing I won’t piss anyone off.

  • Derek Faria

    HA!….and thats why I like you so much. Well then, you said you have all of the legal stuff worked out, it was more ethical to you and you didnt want to be a jerk to the author or family etc. As previously mentioned, I would probably go ahead and offer it at that point. I ALSO believe that you would be doing more of a “JUST” thing, not only to the community, but more importantly to the author and the family as well for keeping it alive!
    My two cents anyway.

  • Derek Faria

    I guess why this question is so hard is because there is no “right” answer….unlike “legal”. Ethics are a strange thing and are widely varied. If you are asking a question (which you are) based on ethics, it is not dissimilar to running a pole for opinions.
    I say this as I took a college class on Cultural Anthropology, which depicted all kinds of ethical scenarios around the world. Most of which was covered seemed nothing short of bizaar to someone born and raised in the States. Doesn’t make it right or wrong really, it happened to be something of the “norm” depending on the scenario (way of life) who all was partaking in it.
    So in short, again, I personally do not see an issue with keeping this said book alive by making it become available to the community once again. Unfortunately, that is just my take on it, “Ethically”.
    Someone else may say that it is the author’s work and should not be made available without his/her permission. Again, not right or wrong either…..a mere opinion at best!
    Good luck Tim

  • Steph

    From an ethical/moral standpoint: copyright were originally intended to be a LIMITED time monopoly as an incentive to share. It was always the case the the work would eventually enter public domain. Originally, copyrights were ~7years. Through the power of big corporations, people have grown into the (bogus) idea that authors are forever entitled to have a monopoly on their work. Even today, that’s not true. So, the idea of sharing someone else’s work free of charge is perfectly ethical.

    From a legal standpoint: as I was mentionning, in the US and most industrialised countries, copyright is granted for a LIMITED term. However, big corporations get arround that by lobbying (successfully) to get the copyright duration extended periodically, and it’s usually done retroactivally. So, the reality is that even a 100years old book is probably still copyrighted in the US.

    So, in short, ethically, it’s fine. Legally, you could get yourself in a lot of trouble. It’s also difficult to figure out when exactly a work enters public domain given current copyright laws.

    If you have your personnal hard copy, and let people borrow it, then you are probably legally safe (then again, I’m not a lawyer).

  • Andy Wood

    is it possible to reach out to the publisher and/author (family) for permission to post and/or electronically republish the work through th your specific median? Depending on the publisher or ability to contact the author/decendants it may be possible to obtain written permission.

  • Lots of great viewpoints represented here, and a few others on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. My point in posting this was to find out what others thought on the topic in order to help me clarify my own views. In that it’s been successful. The easiest thing for me to do is what I’ve been doing; nothing. After considering all the views expressed, I plan to continue doing nothing for the time being. Thanks for all the comments. It’s great to be able to reach out to the community and get feedback. I sincerely appreciate it.

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