Playing by the E-Book Rules


The law treats electronic books and their printed counterparts differently when it comes to what you can do with them.

Q. Is it possible to donate e-books to a library’s digital collection?

A. Check with your local library, as policies may vary from institution to institution and some may have their own electronic-book donation solutions. In general, though, donating your finished e-books to libraries does not work in the same way that donating printed books and other materials does.

According to the American Library Association website, “E-books cannot be donated because their use is governed by contract rather than the copyright law.” Under the “first sale doctrine” of United States copyright law, if you legally acquire a book, you have the right to sell or share that specific copy of it however you wish — which means you can keep the book for yourself, give it as a gift, sell it at a stoop sale or donate it to your local library. And when a library buys or acquires a book for its collection, it can lend the book out to library-card holders.

When you get an e-book from an online bookstore and agree to the store’s “terms of use” document, you are buying a nonnegotiable license for the work — and operating under contract law instead of copyright law. For an example of this distinction, check out Amazon’s Kindle Store Terms of Use or Barnes & Noble’s Nook Store Terms of Service documents.

Although some e-book providers allow you to digitally loan e-books to friends for a brief period, the license agreement typically requires that you use the book in a personal, noncommercial way (even after you die). A copyrighted e-book typically includes restrictions that prevent duplication or unauthorized users from opening the file — which make electronic donations to libraries problematic.

Still, there are other ways to make sure libraries legally get e-books to lend through the OverDrive service or whichever system is used. Financial donations that allow libraries to buy their own materials are one option, as is the crowdfunding site, which takes donations in exchange for providing e-book licenses.

Personal Tech invites questions about computer-based technology to This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually.

J.D. Biersdorfer has been answering technology questions — in print, on the web, in audio and in video — since 1998. She also writes the Sunday Book Review’s “Applied Reading” column on ebooks and literary apps, among other things.@jdbiersdorfer