Eric Mack has been on his paperless challenge for weeks now and he has posed an interesting question on his blog- Is it legal to scan your books to read on a Tablet PC?. This seems a simple question on the surface but he points out that when you research the copyright law and the definition of "fair use" it is in fact not a question with a straightforward answer. Eric is primarily concerned with his ability to scan textbooks into PDF format for use on his Tablet PC so he can make notes and highlights right on the text, much as he would do with the paper version. He points out he only scans books he owns and he doesn’t scan them into digital form and then sell the paper version.
The definition of fair use is the bugaboo in this issue. It means different things to different people, making it a mine field in situations like this. Anyone with children has heard this exchange many times:
Billy: Mommy, Bobby broke the last cookie in half and gave me the little piece! That’s not fair!
Bobby: It’s fair to me.
It seems to me that neither publishers nor authors would object to the usage that Eric is discussing. I view scanning the book into a digital form for easier access to be firmly in the "fair use" camp. It is no different than copying or handwriting a single chapter of the book to take to today’s lecture to avoid carrying the 8 pound textbook. I don’t think an argument can be made that this exceeds fair use. Even the evil RIAA doesn’t go after legitimate consumers who make digital copies of music files they own, they go after people who distribute and download copyrighted material they do not own.
This quandary of Eric’s would go away if publishers of textbooks would release their material in ebook format, as long as it is a standard format like PDF and didn’t prohibit the inking that Eric so desires. Many publishers do in fact offer their books in PDF format which eliminates this question entirely, but until they all do Eric will likely continue to scan his books and feel slightly guilty about it. This is usually the end result of all attempts to limit fair use of copyrighted material. The legitimate consumer does what is needed to make legal copies but often feels bad about it. The copyright thieves do whatever they want to break DRM and profit illegally anyway.