Resources » Other Topics (Non-PDF) » Understanding U.S. Copyrights and PDFs*

Can You Print and Distribute Someone Else’s Intellectual Property?

When does a document become copyrighted? What is digital rights management, and how do they apply to PDFs? Is it legal to make copies of PDFs? This article answers FAQs about DRM, copyrights, and PDF documents.

Copyright is a term that generally refers to protecting the intellectual property of another person or entity, like a business. Intellectual property, or IP, can be anything from a book, art, music, or images, as well as computer code and software programs. Copyright laws* protect the original creator of the IP so they can profit from their work and potentially make a living. It also protects created works from being used without permission, whether the creator intends to profit from it or not.

Without copyright laws, original work could easily be stolen and reproduced. 

Still, as useful as copyright laws are, it can be somewhat scary when you hear of the heavy fines that someone may face when breaching copyright law. For this reason, it’s important to understand general copyright law and how it may apply to the PDFs that you create or use. 

Before You Print That Copyrighted PDF … 

The copyright law enacted by the United States protects the ownership of various pieces of “published” works. The laws protecting these works do not extend to ideas, meaning the author must have created the work in some capacity. Trademarks, such as logos or brand names of companies, also fall under protected material.

While the law has various nuances pertaining to the different pieces of artistic property, the general idea is that you cannot use any copyrighted material without the original author’s permission

That said, there are a few exceptions. These exceptions are referred to as Fair Use.

Harvard Law interprets fair use as “The right to use a copyrighted work under certain conditions without the permission of the copyright owner.” Determining whether your PDF falls under fair use can be complex, but the following factors must be considered:

  • The purpose and character of the use: Educational and nonprofit materials may fall under fair use. If the PDF is used for commercial gain, it won’t fall under fair use. 
  • Nature of copyrighted work: Facts and statistics are generally not as heavily protected, and you may be able to use them far more than creative properties (but cite your sources!).
  • Amount and substantiality of the portion in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole: If using a copyrighted work, how much of the work was used in relation to the document or PDF you’re creating? If you use a quote from a book, it may be fine. But if you use chapters from the book in your PDF, and then sell it, you may infringe copyright law. 
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work: If your PDF will damage the potential commercial gain of the original copyrighted work you’re using, it may not be considered fair use. For example, if you create and sell a PDF that’s a collection of a certain photographer’s work.

When you use a PDF internally with no intention to capitalize, distribute or commercialize the copyrighted content, it’s likely that your PDF may fall under fair use. For example:

  • If you print a recipe from for personal use, that’s fair use.
  • If you print the same recipe and publish it on your cooking blog or put it in your own cookbook and distribute it, that likely infringes on Betty Crocker’s copyright, even if you attribute the recipe to its originator.  

Courts consider all of the above factors when determining whether something is fair use or not. If you expect to run into issues of copyright with your work, you should always consult a lawyer on the subject before publishing anything. 

What is DRM (Digital Rights Management)? 

We’ve used the term “publishing” before, which may conjure images of physical books or texts. In the digital age, however, publishing also refers to properties in the virtual world. If anything, digital works are even more vulnerable to copyright law as it becomes increasingly easier to copy other people’s works. 

That which is virtual is just as protected as the physical and digital rights management (DRM) is a common method for protecting such digital properties. 

DRM can be thought of as a ruleset that the original author or publisher can impose upon a digital work in order to limit or restrict what viewers can do with copies of the property that they purchase. It may, for example, limit you from making copies of the digital property, copying text or images, printing the content, and more. 

If someone creates a copyrighted PDF, for example, they may use a PDF reader/editor to create security rules to lock or secure their work. PDFs may have passwords or limits on what you can view without permission. By doing this, the original author maintains control of their work and limits who has access as well as what they can use from the document. 

FAQs About Copyrights and PDFs

Copyright law can be complicated and nuanced. However, it’s structured in a way to promote creativity while still protecting it. Here are a few common questions you may ask about copyrighted work as it relates to PDFs. 

Do you have to file for a copyright in order to protect your work?

In the United States, the courts recognize that a copyright exists “from the moment the work is created.” For example, as soon as we typed the first letter of this article, it became copyrighted property of PDF.Live.

Can you use copyrighted images for personal use?

In general, no. If an image is licensed by a photographer/artist and copyrighted, then you cannot use them without permission from the owner. If the image you’re using falls under fair use, you may be able to use it. 

In general, if you want to use images for a work presentation, online blog, or another commercial reason, you should employ public domain or Creative Commons images that can be used under certain conditions. These conditions are usually giving the image credit or paying the original creator for permission to use images. 

Consider searching Creative Commons or royalty-free images online to find images that you can use with permission. Always read the fine print.

Can you print a copyrighted book?

Printing a physical version of a virtual book that you purchased a copy of can be convenient for studying and taking notes, but does this violate copyright law? 

Again, it depends on the use. If you’re using it for personal reasons, there shouldn’t be an issue, but review the license agreement for the virtual book. However, if you’re selling and distributing physical copies of the book, you’re definitely violating copyright law. 

How can you check a PDF for copyright?

If a PDF was created by another person or company, it’s considered their intellectual property and therefore falls under copyright law. However, copyrighted PDFs may also come with attached metadata that tells you more about the copyright. This metadata can often be found in the properties section of a PDF. 

How can you get permission to print copyrighted materials?

Contacting the original owner/author of the copyrighted material is the best way to use and print copyrighted material. It’s also sometimes possible to obtain a license to use certain properties, such as a license for using all the royalty-free music company has in their library.  

How long do copyrights last?

Copyrights last for the entire duration of the author’s life plus 70 years from the first publication of the work. Copyrights don’t have to be renewed in order to fall under copyright laws. 

*This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice.