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Alice in LawLand

Two knitters' lists I belong to have recently brought up an issue that I would like someone competent to clarify for me (any lawyers who knit out there?). There seems to be a consensus among some laypeople that if a book is out-of-print and unavailable at a reasonable price, then it can be photocopied, even in its entirety. The reason this topic is being hotly debated on knitting lists is the unavailability of certain Alice Starmore books. Works such as Aran Knitting and In the Hebrides have been out-of-print for a while, there doesn't seem to be a plan to reprint them, and only a few copies are available on eBay and specialized bookstores at prices that no one in their right mind would call reasonable. Today, Aran Knitting is listed from $299.85 to $794.95, and In the Hebrides from $337.50 to $1,203.43 (as seen on BookFinder).

While I wait for someone who knows what they are talking about to come to the rescue, I thought I'd look for answers from Stanford University. They ought to know. Here is a quote from the Fair Use section of the Stanford University Libraries website:

  • "Copying a complete work from the library collection is prohibited unless the work is not available at a "fair price." This is generally the case when the work is out of print and used copies are not available at a reasonable price." [Italics are mine]
Ah, don't you like that "generally"? What was I thinking, looking for something specific on a law website, however educational?

So, how "generally" is generally and what are the exceptions? For one thing, this is all within the library confine. What about me making photocopies of an out-of-print book I own and giving them to friends? I may be overcautious, but I don't automatically assume that what is within a library's rights would be ok for poor little me.

Besides, even for libraries the photocopying right doesn't seem so air-tight. On other websites, I found mention of a couple of factors that might affect them, too. One is the use of the photocopied material: strictly private study, scholarship or research. The other is the age of the work in question: how far along its copyright term is the book?

So many questions, so few answers… One thing's for sure: Fair Use is a very gray area of intellectual property law and I am eager to hear from experts. In the meantime, I doubt that Aran Knitting is up for grabs. Good thing I bought my copy when it was in print.