book bazaar

Can you sell your old books without breaking the law?

Are all those second-hand books being bought and sold on the pavements legitimate business?

I wasn’t entirely awake that Saturday morning as I found myself in the car, being driven to Flora Fountain with two boxes full of books, with orders from the matriarch to get rid of them at the second-hand book market. Even though we had moved to a bigger house, there still wasn’t enough space to keep the numerous books accumulated over the years. Each of us has different tastes, and with a carte blanche given regarding literature, we weren’t too far off from filling our third bookshelf, to say nothing of books being stuffed into any cupboard which had space.

When we moved, however, my mother finally put her foot down. We could keep the books we really liked, but the ones which had gone into storage after being read once would have to go. My sister’s snide remark regarding certain trunks full of sarees earned her a smack on the head and immediate orders to “go study”.

It still took a week before we weeded through our disjointed library of sorts and picked out the ones which had to go. Then came the debate as to what would be done with them. There was too much respect for the books to straightaway throw them into the trash. Of course, the raddiwala would take them off our hands with minimum hassle. And that would mean some monetary return (however minuscule) on the large investment made on the books.

The option of donating to a library was debated. I had already given away some books to my college library. But it would be too much trouble to send them all the way across the country to Kolkata where I had studied for my law degree. And none of us knew a good library in Mumbai.

In any case, these were the books which we considered the worst in our respective collections. There was a very good chance that a self-respecting librarian would turn up their nose at these. The embarrassment from rejection was more than we cared to bear. Also, since a fair amount of money had gone into those books, some monetary returns would be preferable.

First and second

It was thus that I found myself taking that particular journey one Saturday morning. Most Mumbaikars are familiar with the place. There are ten or fifteen shopkeepers who sell (and buy) books on the pavement next to the structure which gives the area its name. Thousands upon thousands of books are available here, ranging from Archie comics, through Dostoevsky classics, to glossy coffee-table books. Most of them are old books available at a fraction of the original price. To illustrate, an adroit haggler can easily pick up a William Dalrymple hardcover for less than three hundred bucks.

While certainly dwarfed by Kolkata’s College Street or Delhi’s Daryaganj in terms of sheer numbers, Fountain has its own charm. The shopkeepers know a lot of the books they sell. They are like a live version of Amazon’s “You might also like” feature. Pick up one book and they will tell you about other books that are in some way related to that one. There are towers of books to browse through, and most of my trips there end with me carrying back half a dozen books.

But that Saturday, I was there on a mission to come back without any books. I ended up unsuccessful, as I managed to sell only around half the books I’d taken. The person buying them told me sadly that he would have purchased more, but the municipality had cracked down on them and had forced them to scale back the size of the “shops”.

Incredibly, these second-hand bookstores had had to sell many of the books to the raddiwalas, so as to get rid of them in time. But even that particular market was soon saturated – the remainder ended up with the dumpsters. It was a truly sad state of affairs.

What the law says

The legality and necessity of the municipality’s actions is a debate for another day, but a different legal question pops up regarding such markets. How legal are they? One might think that their widespread presence would probably suggest they are legal. However, that argument falls as soon as you consider that pirated CDs are also available fairly easily. It was pointed out to me how if you buy a song or a movie online, you cannot resell further. Surely the same logic should apply here?

A rudimentary understanding of Copyright Law might make us think that reselling of books is illegal and infringes on the copyright of the author or the publisher. Fortunately, this is not the case. The reselling of books is protected by the concept of “First Sale Doctrine”. This doctrine finds its roots in American law and is part of their codified law. Indian law too recognises it in the Indian Copyright Act.

The First Sale Doctrine mandates that when an object containing a copyright is sold, the rights of the copyright owner with regards to that object are extinguished. This allows the article to be resold, rented or to be disposed of in any manner by the buyer. This does not mean that all the rights (like the right to reproduce) are extinguished as those continue to vest with the copyright owner. For example, if I write a book and sell it to you, you can sell that copy to another person. However, the right to create more of these books remains with me.

Why is this doctrine necessary?  Because otherwise, every subsequent sale of an object which contains a copyright would require negotiations with the copyright owner. The implications of this are far more serious than are apparent at first glance.

It would, of course, mean the death knell of the second-hand book and CD market. But that’s not all. It would also mean that you could not sell your TV to someone without negotiating with the owner of the copyright used in the software which runs in it. The same principle would apply to your car, your portable music player, your mobile phone, and so on. With software being an intrinsic part of every “smart” device, copyright has seeped into everyday life. The doctrine ensures that everyday transactions are spared this extra layer of negotiations.

Clearly, it has tremendous potential for good. However, it also has, well, potential for other things. In the Wiley series of cases in the USA as well as in India, an unintended use of the doctrine came to light. Wiley is a well-known publishing company which publishes books all across the world. It produces low-cost editions of its books in developing countries. The difference between the costs across countries is significant. It gave some enterprising individuals the idea that they could buy those low-cost books in developing countries (like India and Thailand), ship them to the USA, and sell them there. They could then undercut Wiley’s own books by a margin.

Wiley filed lawsuits both in the USA and India, claiming a right to prevent these books from being sold. Interestingly, the Indian courts ruled in Wiley’s favour while the American courts have ruled against Wiley on the basis of the First Sale Doctrine.

However, the doctrine is still recognised in Indian law, and if you are not commercially seeking to benefit from copyrights owned by other people on a large scale without their permission, you don’t have to worry. The doctrine still protects people like you and me who just want to sell used things to people who might make use of them. So the next time you pass a market for old books, don’t worry about the legality of buying or selling there.

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