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August 15, 2011


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You asked: "Second, is it ethical (as opposed to legal – but, of course, we can talk about legality as well) for me to convert the books that I’ve already purchased as Digital Editions PDFs into regular PDFs for my sole and personal use?"

I would say that there is nothing unethical about your doing so for your personal use. The issue would be about sharing your purchased material, but you aren't sharing with anyone but yourself. If you bought a book and scanned a chapter in as a PDF so you could make it more portable, that would seem to follow within the ethical understanding of 'fair use'.

I can't speak to the legal understanding, however. The current lawsuit filed against Georgia State University by several book publishers challenges what appears to be a very common understanding of 'fair use'. If a professor takes a PDF of an article and puts that article on a password-protected, student-only classroom interface (iCollege, Blackboard, etc), they argue that is a violation of copyright. But if the same professor simply linked to the library access of the article (stable link to JSTOR, for example) where the student would have to log in to see it, that would fall within the bounds of fair use.

Thanks, Eric, I share your ethical intuitions. I think that it is morally permissible to remove the DRM for personal use (that is, so that I can read and annotate the PDF on my various devices). It is, however, probably unethical for me to remove the DRM and post it on some site such as

One minor quibble with something you said: "if the same professor simply linked to the library access of the article (stable link to JSTOR, for example) where the student would have to log in to see it, that would fall within the bounds of fair use."

I don't think that it has anything to do with fair use. Sharing a link does not constitute any sort of use of the copyrighted work; it's simply free speech. We can disseminate information (such as the URL of a stable JSTOR link) to whomever we like.

What I find curious is that, on the publisher's interpretation of 'fair use', the library is allowed to set up a physical or electronic reserve that is restricted to my students but that I'm not. That seems silly.

The legal question is an interesting one. I can certainly modify a copyrighted work (say, the PDF of a journal article) by annotating it for my personal research purposes. But can I remove the DRM so that I can annotate it using better software than Digital Editions? In point of fact, I'm not actually modifying the copyrighted work. I'm modifying the code that a third party has put on it.

When you purchase a book from, do you have to agree not to remove the DRM?

Hi Dale,

According to them, my use of their Website constitutes my agreement to their Terms of Use (see here: But, beyond using their website, I don't believe that I have otherwise indicated any such agreement. Indeed, I was unaware of this and of their terms of use until you asked the question and I googled " terms of use." Of course, I may not be remembering clicking some box at some point. These days I click such boxes without much thought. I don't take them any more seriously than the posted speed limit on my local freeway.

I agree that it's surely fine to strip the DRM from a bought article for personal use. And if you lack the technical means to do so, I would think it'd also be fine to achieve the same end by downloading a pirated version of your bought book. (The law might see this differently, but there's presumably no ethical difference.)

On the general issue of personal E-libraries, I'm a big fan of dedicated readers with e-ink screens. I set out some Kindle-specific tips in an old post, Read Anything on Kindle. (You can use Calibre for any device though -- highly recommended.)

Hi Richard,

Thanks for the tip. Regarding Calibre, am I correct in thinking that the result won't be faithful to the print version (the fonts, tables, pagination, and page layout being identical to that in the print version) and that Calibre isn't good at converting PDFs (with or without DRMs)?


One might argue there was a difference between stripping the DRM and downloading a pirated version in that the latter involves some sort of connection with or possible endorsement of behaviors that are unethical—i.e., posting pirated materials online. I don't really buy this line of argument, at least not in this case, but I suspect some would.

Doug - yes, the conversion process will lose much of the original formatting, so it might not be so useful for your purposes after all. (It's perhaps better suited for more "general purpose" e-reading, converting html copies of out of print books, etc.)

To remove DRM from digital editions PDF files use a Calibre plugin available here:

The legality of de-DRM-ing files might vary.

A general set of de-DRMing links and tools can be found here.

I don't think there's anything remotely unethical about using these, but I assume you're more interested in arguments than head-counts. Do you think click-wrap 'licenses' bind? Do you feel there's a content-independent obligation to obey the law? Do you think the way forward for academic publishing, and the ecology of knowledge more generally, is to give more control to publishers? These are the sorts of mid-level arguments that I imagine will drive the bottom-line conclusion.

Try the Bluefire Reader app for reading DRM files.

I've been using GoodReader on my iPad for reading/annotating PDFs. It's fantastic--syncs with dropbox and google docs.

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