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« Bookbinding: When nice books are illegal

The Problem

Sometimes printing a PDF is legal, but making a really pretty book might not be.

I just want to make pretty hand-​made hardcover books, like these I did years ago:

Call of Cthulhu hand-bound hardcovers

Some of my hand-​bound hardcovers

Using real sewn signatures like these:

Sewn signatures to bind into a hardcover

Sewn signatures ready to bind into a hardcover book (click to enlarge)

Without becoming a criminal.

I’m trying to make some one-​off fancy hardcover books from some PDFs I have. Unfortunately, doing so may often be illegal, even when printing the document to make a less nicely bound book would be legal.

What the heck,” you say? Well, here’s the thing….

Making a really high end hardcover from a document such as a PDF involves rearranging the pages (“imposition”) in order to print them in sets on sheets with more than one page per side, so that you can fold them and sew them in groups (“signatures”).

Commercial e-​books sold as PDFs are often encrypted with flags on the PDF permit printing, but not modification. Nor do they permit “document assembly” which is exactly what I need: the ability to rearrange, add and delete pages in the PDF. Unfortunately, common approaches to doing imposition involve generating a modified PDF: one in which the pages are at least rearranged and put more than one to a (now larger) page. So far, it looks like many (perhaps all?) imposition apps do it this way and don’t work with PDFs that have restrictions on modification (perhaps on PDFs that have *any* access restrictions?).

Now, I can easily break the encryption on a PDF, if that PDF allows opening but just has restrictions on specific uses like modification. If I do that, I can then use imposition software on a PDF that allows printing but not modification, and make a fancy book.

But (at least as I understand it, and admittedly I’m not a lawyer) the Digital Millenium Copyright Act says that circumventing an access restriction is always illegal, regardless of why I do it. That makes me a criminal if I do that, even if for the sole reason of making a pretty hardcover book. Even when printing the pages out normally and slapping glue on the spine, like a typical softcover “perfect-​bound” book, is permitted and legal.

(Perhaps a lawyer could successfully argue that the flags on PDFs that allow some uses but not others are guidance, rather than effective technological measures creating access restrictions? That is, unlike encryption of the entire PDF with a password needed to open it. That argument worked for Adobe v Monotype over the embedding flags in fonts. But I have neither the interest nor the deep pockets needed to fund making that argument in court.)

[Update: As seen in the comments on this post in the first 18 hours, the legal situation is more complicated and more uncertain than I thought. Fair use may indeed offer a defense. Given the uncertainty, and my desire to stay on the right side of both copyright law and the DMCA, my behavior is not going to change much with this knowledge, though it is comforting.]

Why are PDFs set this way in the first place?

So I was wondering, “why do publishers use the particular combo of settings they do, that is bugging me?” It turns out the answer is “because that’s the only reasonable option Adobe makes easily available to them.”

Although the PDF format allows for very granular permissions settings, the Acrobat Pro and InDesign UIs do not. They give the choice of “no protection” or one of four option combinations, which determine the settings of the 10 different permissions.

Options Adobe presents for PDF security

Most publishers of commercial PDFs are going to want to allow commenting, and disallow document modifications. That gives them exactly one choice, which also disallows “document assembly.”

The common choice for security

Nobody is going to go for the “everything but page extraction” option:

Option for "everything but page extraction"

Option for "everything but page extraction"

… and short of that, allowing document assembly disallows commenting, for some reason I don’t understand! Perhaps Adobe thought that this would only be used by books going to a professional high-​end print production house, who would not need to stick comments on the PDF? Teh broken.

The standard combination that allows "document assembly"

Of course the use case for comments in general is much broader than for imposition, so publishers quite reasonably pick the option that is bugging me.

I see there are third party tools that do allow such granular option choices (e.g. Nitro PDF), but of course they are not so widely used.


Ideally Adobe would change their content creation and Acrobat Pro applications to allow more granular settings of the 10 different functionality permissions in PDFs, without forcing content creators to resort to specialized apps.

We could also fix this by changing the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). I gather circumventing an access control mechanism is always illegal unless a specific exemption is carved out for that use. Allowing an affirmative defense for cases where the access control mechanism is circumvented to enable functionality which is either generally allowed by the licensor, or allowed by fair use, would be cool. I’m sure it won’t happen, though, and it would be a long wait.

What else can I do?

I can go to the copyright holders and ask their permission to break the encryption on their PDFs for the purposes of making a fancy book from each, for my personal use. Getting the permission of the copyright holder gets one off the hook for DMCA violation.

(I would also consider it okay to sell such a book to somebody else, if that third party could prove to me that they had licensed the printable PDF as well. But that isn’t my intent in making the books, I really just have personal use in mind.)

I have in fact been doing this, with good luck to date. Kind of a pain to track them down, but authors so far have been really great. They say sure, I can break the encryption on my PDFs for this specific purpose. I guess they quite rightly figure that if I were an evil hacker I wouldn’t be asking nicely about something that I can do easily enough without permission. 🙂

Printing Books?

Hey, I love e-​books. I read more than I used to thanks to e-​books and my Kindle. But there are some books that for various reasons I would like to have a really nice physical hard copy of. Some of these I have already licensed as a PDF, and that PDF and the license allows me to print it out. So I’d like to do that, and not end up breaking the law just because I want to make a really nice book out of it, not just pages stuck together with glue, like a paperback.

More About Signatures

A “signature” is a group of sheets of paper, folded in half, which can then be stitched through the spine of the group (the fold), and also stitched to the other signatures. In traditional offset printing the signature usually starts out as a single huge sheet, folded repeatedly, and trimmed so that the pages are only linked at the spine at not at top and bottom. But if you want to make a fancy book from a PDF, you could just use pages twice the size of the pages of the original PDF document, folded in the middle, to make four pages per sheet. As almost all my originals were 8 1/​2″ x 11″, and I have a printer capable printing 11″ x 17″ pages, double-​sided, I decided to do that.

Books using sewn signatures instead of glue alone are much sturdier and more resistant to pages coming loose. If the sewn signatures are also sewn to thick cloth tapes which attach to the covers, the book can be extra resistant to the entire book block coming loose from the binding as well. This is the style of binding I am doing in current projects.

More About Imposition

Now, the interesting thing about signatures is that it complicates the positions of your pages. To understand what I mean, try taking three sheets of paper in a stack. Fold the whole set in half to make a booklet. Now start numbering the top right corner of each page. You’ve got 12 numbers.

When you take the stack apart, the first sheet has page 1 on the right half and page 12 on the left. and on the other side it’s pages 2 and 11. Let’s call it 12-​1/​2-​11. The next sheet is 10-​3/​4-​9, and the final sheet is 8-​5/​6-​7. In a full on book there would be multiple signatures, each starting in this kind of sequence. So if I’m printing 8.5×11 pages on 11×17 sheets, I need to rearrange the original pages, and put more than one on each side of a sheet, to get the right pages on the right sheets. Add in possibilities like throwing in some blank or unnumbered pages at the beginning, and multiple signatures, and it can get quite complicated.

Luckily this is an old and fairly well-​understood printers’ problem. It’s called “imposition,” which is the art of figuring out which page numbers go where. Of course, in serious offset printing a single sheet might be folded a bunch of times before cutting it apart… that’s really complicated! So there’s imposition software that sorts this out for us. The one I’ve heard the most about is called Quite Imposing and deals with the complexities faced by printers putting many pages on a sheet, among other things. It’s a plug-​in to Adobe Acrobat. But it costs $475 USD.

However, for my purposes I only need two pages on each side of the sheet. For that use, I found the amusingly named Cheap Impostor software does everything I need for a fraction of the price of the high end applications. It’s only $35, and it’s shareware so you can try before you buy. I’ve already pumped over a thousand pages through it. The author was quite responsive for tech support, as well. Highly recommended.

15 commentsto “Bookbinding: When nice books are illegal”

  • April 6, 2012
    John Hawkinson wrote

    Thomas writes, “But (at least as I understand it, and admittedly I’m not a lawyer) the Digital Millenium Copyright Act says that circumventing an access restriction is always illegal, regardless of why I do it.

    I believe this is incorrect, or at least, disputed.

    One of the big questions about the DMCA relates to fair use. 17 USC § 1201(c)(1) states that “Nothing in this section shall affect rights, remedies, limitations, or defenses to copyright infringement, including fair use, under this title.

    There’s some question as to exactly how that plays with other parts of the DMCA, like 17 USC § 1201(a)(1)(A) “No person shall circumvent a technology measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.

    [My understanding had been that the fair use is a defense against copyright infringement, but not against the DMCA circumvention clause. But I am not a lawyer. Some of the legal precedents you cite below definitely contradict my previous belief. Thanks!—T]

    As a practical matter, when you do this in the privacy of your own home, you have a reasonable interpretation that your § 1201(c)(1) right to fair use (which, of course, is enshrined in far more than the DMCA) permits you to circumvent.

    To know the meaning of the law, you have to go to the case law. The case law is divided, with cases like Storage Tech v. Custom Hardware (tape library error codes) and Chamberlain v. Skylink (garage door openers) favoring fair use, and cases like Universal v. Reimerdes (DVD decryption) favoring the DMCA prohibition on circumvention.

    Some would argue that PDF encryption is more like DVD encryption. But the economics are radically different. I think you have a plausible claim to a fair use defense here, and certainly an aggrieved party would have no argument that you have financially profited.

    [There are two kinds of PDF encryption. One is encrypting the entire PDF with a password needed to open it. This is more like DVD encryption at a technical level. The other is to have permissions related to specific activities done with the PDF. The PDF itself is not actually encrypted in this case, but the passwords are saved as a gatekeeping measure so that compliant software can require entry of the password before allowing the otherwise-​disallowed procedures.—T]

    But, of course, what you cannot do is publish your circumvention device, since that would be contributory infringement. So you cannot share how you do it.

    [My main way is to use off-​the-​shelf PDF-​decryption apps. Many of them are free. Others cost #20–30. As they have legitimate non-​infringing uses (like mine, or for people who have forgotten their own passwords), simply publishing a link presumably would not constitute contributory infringement. But people can find them on their own anyway.—T]

    Anyhow, I’m not a lawyer, but that’s just my take.

    I think it is best to fight for rights that are important, like fair use, and not knuckle under to the chilling effects of the DMCA. Which I sort of fear might be happening here, in your zeal to comply.

    [My desire to pursue a hobbyist use of printed PDFs is not so strong as to overwhelm my desire to comply with the law in this area. Even when I think some parts of the law are arguably stupid.—T]

  • April 6, 2012
    Tess Gleason wrote

    Thank you for this article. I was totally unaware of these issues and was looking for a different way of putting all the information I’m learning about crafting into something more permanent than a three-​ring binder. And so began to learn the craft of bookbinding and also looking at Acorbat as a method of putting information into signatures. If I decide to make my own personal information available in a .pdf format I will remember this.

    [Note that I will very soon be publishing my lengthy blog post on making your own hardcover books. It’s already mostly written. This is just a prelude to that post, really!—T]

  • April 6, 2012
    Stephen Samuel wrote

    Find a printer that does the rearrangement for you … The Konica/​Minolta C650 is an example of a printer (that I sometimes use that has a print-​to-​booklet mode. As long as you can print sections of the PDF. You can print (for example) pages 1-​20, 21-​40, etc as groups (each one as a booklet) and then fold the individual groups into a signature.
    Voila, DONE! No need to break the Digital Restriction Measures.

    [It’s not breaking the DRM that’s illegal under the DMCA. It’s any means of circumventing it. So aside from the possibility of fair use overruling the DMCA, this would seem to be as illegal (or legal) as editing the PDF to remove the restriction. Or that’s how I read it, not that I’m a lawyer, etcetera. I actually found an even easier workaround than yours, but I’m not going to publish it at this time.—T]

    This, however, does nothing to address the problem of Digital Restriction Measures, generally… Like what happens 150 years from now when these books fall out of copyright, but nobody has a cleartext copy of the book?

    [Well, as the usage restrictions in a PDF are trivially easy to remove, I wouldn’t worry too much about that case. Plus these PDFs allow printing, and text extraction, they just don’t allow “document assembly.” So the content wouldn’t be lost.—T]

  • April 7, 2012
    Robert Bolick wrote

    I’m not a lawyer, but I’m a publisher and worked with the AAP to support the DMCA. The defense of personal use and fair use are still strong. The precedent set that allows us to record TV shows and films at home for personal use is a strong one. I hope you will put aside your fears and continue pursuing your craft for your personal satisfaction and needs. Cheers, BobB

    [Thanks, Bob. I have been pleased to discover through the feedback on this post that the DMCA’s anti-​circumvention powers may not be as sweeping at I had thought. At the same time, though it’s a bit of a pain in the posterior, I have no real objection to simply asking the copyright holders if they are cool with it. Of course, if the copyright holder was large and unresponsive, or overly paranoid, that might not work so well. But I’ve been lucky so far.—T]

  • April 7, 2012
    John Hawkinson wrote

    Thomas: The problem with asking the rightsholders for permission to do this is that it leads to a world where people feel they have to ask the rightsholders for that permission, and that the rightsholders expect to be asked, etc.

    So my principled objection is that if you believe you have the right to do it, you should exercise that right, and do so loudly and clearly.

    One of the problems with DMCA circumvention is whether there are substantial non-​infringing uses. When all the case law turns on cases where someone was doing something bad, it’s hard for the courts to find in favor of bad actors.

    It’d be really nice to have a publisher sue someone who innocently printed a single book out of their PDF, so that that person could win the case and there would be a case on the books that demonstrated fair use can win against the DMCA in this scenario. I realize you don’t want to be that one person who gets sued (at least, not until you win!), and also that the chances of being sued over this are somewhere between vanishingly small and nonexistent.

    But I want to stand up for the principle!
    (I realize that in this case, standing up for the principle also means being somewhat less than the most polite you could possibly be. It is certainly more polite to ask a rightsholder for permission than to do it without their permission, regardless of what the law states.)


    [I agree with everything you’ve written here. The only other thing to note is that my whole career is rather dependent on people’s respect for the rights of those who create stuff. So simply as a matter of practicing what I preach and not being a hypocrite, it makes sense (to me) for me to err on the side of asking, and when the law is unclear to give the benefit of the doubt in favor of creator’s rights. At the same time, in this general area, I would be happy if the law regarding fair use vs the DMCA got clarified, and in ways that were more amenable to fair use than I have been assuming.—T]

  • April 13, 2012
    Richard Fink wrote

    A few things:
    Mr. Bolick may sincerely believe it when he says:
    “The defense of personal use and fair use are still strong.”

    But, ummm, oh yeah? Where? How? Name me one case or situation that bolsters the statement, please.

    [Perhaps you should re-​read the very first comment on my post, in which John Hawkinson wrote: “The case law is divided, with cases like Storage Tech v. Custom Hardware (tape library error codes) and Chamberlain v. Skylink (garage door openers) favoring fair use, and cases like Universal v. Reimerdes (DVD decryption) favoring the DMCA prohibition on circumvention.”—T]

    Utterances like this make me wonder if the person putting it forth has been living in a cave for the past twenty years or what. A claim of “Fair Use” has never been more worthless. If there has been one consistent message coming forth from the music, film, and book industries in recent years it’s that WE – the copyright coporate welfare queens – will decide what is “fair” and ANY use without our permission is piracy, plain and simple.
    Public Domain? Hah! The Public Domain is what’s left over AFTER we’ve satisfied our appetites. And if you’d like to claim otherwise, then we invite you to spend yourself into backruptcy debating the point with our legal team.

    To Thomas:
    “The only other thing to note is that my whole career is rather dependent on people’s respect for the rights of those who create stuff. So simply as a matter of practicing what I preach and not being a hypocrite, it makes sense (to me) for me to err on the side of asking, and when the law is unclear to give the benefit of the doubt in favor of creator’s rights.”

    Just my two cents but this is a really unfair and senseless burden to be placing on yourself. (And a conundrum which arises more and more, I think, because of the ease with which we can all publish our personal thoughts for all the world to read. A new development, really.)

    [Well, I firmly believe in doing all sorts of things that you consider to be “senseless burdens,” like crediting my creative sources, so that isn’t much of a concern.—T]

    Without the ability to say you believe that this, that, or another thing is the “right” thing while silently believing something quite other is the essence of politics, is it not?
    I mean, without a tacit understanding that people have to do and say things with which they might not personally agree because it’s their jobs, the world kind of grinds to a halt, doesn’t it?
    I mean, where would we be without “lies, damn lies, and statistics”.

    [I’ll note that the thing that makes this feel like a formality is the fact that all these PDFs allow printing. Rearranging the page order for printing to make sewn signatures seems like a minor matter then, one which I have difficulty imagining the copyright holder would object to. They might not be happy with me having an unprotected version of the PDF, I suppose. If the PDF did not allow printing, I would consider it quite a different case.—T]

    Copyright attorney William Patry had to shut down his personal blog because no matter how many times he said, “These are my personal opinions”, they still got reported as:
    “Google’s chief copyright counsel William Patry writes”

    [Well, that’s another reason to make sure my private life is consistent with my public one in areas like this!—T]

    And don’t forget this blog comment is copyrighted. All rights reserved.

    [Are you going to force me to put in a pre-​commenting warning that any blog comment is licensed to me for purposes of quoting in part or in its entirety? Sigh.—T]

  • April 17, 2012
    Richard Fink wrote

    Just got to reading your comments on my comments. Here are my comments on your comments about my comments.

    >[Well, that’s another reason to make sure my private life is consistent with my public one in areas like this!—T]

    No, no, no!!! Just make sure it APPEARS to be that way.

    [Well, that’s another place we differ. I am big on avoiding actual hypocrisy, not just the appearance of it. — T]

    That’s the only caveat.

    And as far as my or anybody else’s crediting of sources goes – it can only be about crediting the sources you know about and/​or have taken the time identify with some degree of reliability. (And while I’m thinking about it, I wonder at what point “homage” becomes infringement?)

    [Of course. But you’re making a straw man argument; neither I nor anyone else in the previous debate suggested doing other than you write above. The specific case that sparked the discussion was about a typeface that was a revival of a single specific metal typeface, and not crediting its designer. You tried to extrapolate that to crediting every influence, no matter how distant. But nobody was arguing for that.—T]

    I read about the garage-​door opener case years ago when cyber-​law was just a passing interest for me. (It’s more than that, now.) What a hoot! Talk about creative lawyering.
    And a perfect example of why it was so important to defeat SOPA and whatever the next iteration of it will be.
    This is worth a peek:

    [Shirky is awesome! Thanks for that.—T]

    However, I don’t think you’re correct about the decision being based on fair use. Thanks for citing the case.

    [That was John Hawkinson, in an earlier comment. I was just quoting him because you were saying “nobody has pointed to a case of x” when he was doing exactly that in the same comment thread.—T]

    I’m going to go read the actual decision. Unless West Publishing decides to charge me for a copy because they “own” the page numbering scheme for all United States Federal Law. (Look into that one, too. Another hoot.)
    Ahhhh, I would’ve assumed defending the indefensible to be a tough gig. But priests and rabbis do it all the time so I guess there’s money in it. And Mitt Romney has no problem with the tax rate but I digress….

    But speaking of charity… thanks to all at Extensis for chipping in for ttfautohint. A worthy goal that I hope pans out for all concerned. Which is everybody on the planet who reads from a screen.

    [You’re welcome. It’s a fine thing, already doing a better job of TrueType autohinting than FontLab Studio or FontForge, IMO.]


  • April 17, 2012
    Laurence Penney wrote

    If a printer driver offers “document assembly”, are you breaking the license if you use it? Isn’t “odd-​pages only” or “pages 1-​32” a kind of document assembly? I think it would be a good defence, if any publisher were mad enough to sue, that you were extending your own printer driver. To restrict the kinds of “document assembly” to the arbitrary set offered by a printer manufacturer would be absurd.

    [Hey, hyphenation in an HTML textbox as I edit. That’s a pleasant first!]

    [Note that this is not only a question of getting sued for copyright infringement; violating the DMCA is a crime over here in the USA. Personally, I find that some legal decisions seem to be more thoroughly steeped in the law than they are in any notion of what’s “reasonable.” There are plenty of exceptions, of course. I would love for somebody to be the guinea pig in this area, and for it to go all the way up to the US Supreme Court, because I really want to understand the full interplay between the DMCA and fair use. I just don’t want to be that test animal. On the side, all the copyright holders I’ve asked have been eminently reasonable on this question. One publisher is even talking to me about binding an extra one just for them!—T]

  • April 17, 2012
    John Hawkinson wrote

    Richard Fink writes, “[I]Unless West Publishing decides to charge me for a copy because they “own” the page numbering scheme for all United States Federal Law. (Look into that one, too. Another hoot.)[/I]”

    You may find it instructive to look at White et al v. West Publishing and Reed Elsevier (d/​b/​a LexisNexis), 12-​cv-​1340 in the Southern District of New York.

    White is suing West and LexisNexis for copyright infringement because of their “unabashed wholesale copying of thousands of copyright-​protected works created by, and owned by, the attorneys and law firms who authored them.”

    It was just filed in February, so it won’t get interesting for a while.

    In re Lawrence’s comment, well, I guess it depends on what the PDF DRM spec says about “document assembly.” I seem to have trouble finding the answer to that question…

  • April 26, 2012
    Richard Fink wrote


    Took a quick look at some of the docs you linked to.
    You see, to me, there is no question that those documents should be public domain. (And for all intents and purposes they are. Even though gatekeepers like West and Lexis/​Nexis charge for access. A service fee, really.)
    I have always been told that the work product of a doctor or lawyer who works on my dime belongs to me. I mean, legal briefs are almost always works for hire. So isn’t the client the copyright holder if there is such a thing that pertains to legal documents.
    But it’s more of the same…. give somebody and inch and they want a mile. The more you try to get the copyright laws to fit in with the world of digital content, the crazier it gets.

  • April 26, 2012
    John Hawkinson wrote

    I think we’re out of scope here, but a lawyer’s brief is unambiguously not a “work for hire.” A lawyer/​client relationship is not an employee/​employer relationship, and that’s the definition that matters. See 17 U.S.C § 101. The only way the client would hold copyright would be if a formal copyright assignment was executed.

  • July 18, 2012
    Jules Siegel wrote

    > Books using sewn signatures instead of glue alone are much sturdier and more resistant to pages coming loose.

    I don’t think this is necessarily true. In discussions on book-​art-​l ( it’s been argued that properly made modern adhesive-​bound books are more durable than sewn books. I seem to remember that there was some credible research to support that opinion. The main problem is that they don’t open as well unless special care is taken using methods such as double-​fan gluing.

  • December 12, 2012
    Neil Mansfield wrote

    An imformative and lucid discussion of the ‘fair-​use’ problems confronting people in the digital age. If I’m authorised to print a copy of an on-​line published pdf, why can’t I print it in any format I desire? Well done! I look forward to your book-​binding blog – the subject I was researching when I came across this page.

  • August 17, 2013
    David Miller wrote

    Fair-​use’ is proving to be one of the great dilemmas of the digital age and I think it will take quite a while to resolve. The whole debate is really in the hands of avaricious IP lawyers and they will be sure to set the agenda 🙁

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Homemade Hardcovers: Yet Again, Anti-Circumvention Interferes With Fair Use | Daily Hacking News