Photocopying an Entire Book

One of the nice things about living in a country with a total lack of respect for intellectual property laws is that if you really need to, you can have an entire book photocopied for cheap.

I borrowed a book from my professor which compiled the results of various investigations into foreigners’ studies of Mandarin Chinese. There were quite a few investigations with some relevance to my own research, so I really wanted to buy a copy of the book. None of the bookstores in Shanghai carried it, though, and the bookstore employees seemed to indicate that special ordering it would be a long, difficult process. Even good old 当当网 (China’s most famous online book seller) didn’t have it.

Rather than launching a long crusade to track down a seller of the book, I finally just had my professor’s copy photocopied in a little shop near the school. The book’s cover price was 29 RMB. My photocopied version, bound and all, was 25 RMB.

I still would have rather bought the official book, but this convenient alternative is not so bad.

[For those of you interested in the specifics, the charge was 0.1 RMB per page, but each page was A4, horizontal, covering two pages of the original. So the 450 page book came to 22.5 RMB total, plus 2.5 RMB for binding. I dropped the book off in the evening and picked up my copy the next day around noon.]

John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Next time, try Sometimes, the individual sellers carry overseas title that local bookstores don’t have. I bought a few books through this way.

  2. I wonder what it would cost to turn a book into a PDF (not even OCR, just each page scanned as an image)… it would be a good solution to my book overflow problem.

  3. Money,

    It was a Chinese book, not a foreign one. The publisher was 商务印书馆. I could find other books by that publisher, but for some reason, this particular title wasn’t available.

  4. John B,

    Yeah, I’ve wondered that too. Scanners just aren’t ubiquitous the way photocopy machines are, though.

  5. Just about every present-day photocopy machine can be used as a scanner. You just need to hook it up on a network and install some software on a similarly connected PC. Often not even that: many photocopiers can produce PDF’s directly to a network share.

    Of course all of this implies some rudimentary technical know-how of the staff at the photocopy shop. Even in Western Europe or North America that’s usually the bottleneck. Sadly Chinese bosses are all too often not inclined to train their staff or allow them to experiment, hence teach themselves.

  6. We did this same thing for the exact reason when I was at UMich. Basically the whole class (seminar class, so half a dozen students) went to the copyshop together and we made a buncha copies.

    Check out this machine that Muninn used:

  7. “with a total lack of respect for intellectual property laws ”
    that’s a little harsh

  8. Some of my Asian/Chinese students were doing that here in Australia and when I pointed out to them that it’s illegal they gave me this blank look…

  9. greg pasden Says: November 12, 2007 at 6:44 am

    What do you know about having a book published in China. I am about ready to go to publishing but I want to get a publisher who doesn’t want to take advantage of me (Rip me off) by charging outrageous publishing fees.

    Let me know if you or any of your friends has any suggestions.

    Greg Pasden

  10. you could try looking for it at Amazon China ( or 孔夫子 (, the later one is for old book/used book trading, you might always find most out-of-print books you need over there.

  11. bel

    Seriously, neither businesses nor individuals seem to care. They do what they need to, to get what they want.

  12. well, it becomes complicated when encountering out-of-print/“introduction prohibited”(which due to political reasons for example) publications. in such cases, to break intellectual property laws seems quite humane — the humanity in most Chinese people’s mind, definitely higher than any laws.

  13. Greg —

    If he had the time, he would be urging his publisher to complete the printing & publication of his own book, which has been languishing for over 3 years.

  14. No, that book is dead.

  15. At those prices I should consider self-publishing my work. Hell, it’s better than using those old printing presses I learned.

  16. It’s not legal to do in the US, but I’ve had to resort to it a few times in similar situations (out-of-print — so however much I’d love to pay the authors, it’s not happening — with used copies going at exorbitant prices, etc.) The biggest US copy shop chain has a policy of not helping you but not stopping you.

    They also have this policy when it comes to scanning/copying documents such as passports — as I discovered when sending my employer mine before coming to China! I couldn’t figure out the software and asked for help. They said, “We’re not allowed to help you scan your passport.” I got irritated, as I was working under a serious time constraint to get my visa. They repeated that until I asked, “So, could you show me how to scan something else that isn’t my passport?” and they directed me to the right page of the manual.

  17. parasitius Says: November 18, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    My ‘native’ English is just about shot due to the years of communicating in Chinglish, but is “China’s most famous online book seller” really okay in native English? Chinese abuse the hell outta the word ‘famous’ and I really don’t know when it can and can’t be used anymore.

  18. Mark in Dunan Says: November 19, 2007 at 11:06 pm

    In Japan I’ve experienced both ends of the copyright continuum — one of my professors wanted to use a 45-year-old book as a text, but it was out of print. He contacted the publisher, who said that since there wouldn’t be a demand for more than a few dozen copies, he should just go ahead and make copies. This for a book that still had five yers of copyright left in it!

    The other extreme came at a copy shop where I wanted to copy some really great looking turn-of-the-century (the last century) postcards onto cardboard and send them to friends as part of the country’s New Year tradition. The store resolutely refused to let me copy any of them, pointing to the word “COPYRIGHT” in small letters on the front. I pointed to the numeral “1903” that immediately followed this word, but they wouldn’t budge. A phone call to the manager the next day, in which length of copyright was one-sidedly explained by me to him, straightened things out and I made my copies soon after.

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