Is it legal to sell used books and mazines retrieved from a bookstore dumpster?
October 23, 2009 6:29 PM   Subscribe

Is it legal to sell books, magazines and other items found in a bookstore dumpster on eBay?

I heard someone talking about doing this, and am just curious about whether there is anything illegal about it. The bookstores probably don't want people rifling through their dumpsters, right?
posted by meggie78 to Law & Government (16 answers total)
Please disregard the egregious typo, I'm having problems!
posted by meggie78 at 6:31 PM on October 23, 2009

there have been some discussions in the past about this. IIRC, a dumpster on private property is private... you have no right to take things from it. A dumpster on public property (in the street, etc) is fair game...
posted by HuronBob at 6:35 PM on October 23, 2009

I am not the OP's lawyer. Generally, the problem with dumpster diving when the dumpster is on private property is that you'd be trespassing to get to it.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 6:41 PM on October 23, 2009

if they're in the dumpster, my guess is that the front cover is missing?

according to the inside of many books, this amounts to stolen property. would you be pursued for selling stolen property? that i can't answer.

posted by nadawi at 6:42 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

The publisher's would insist that the books are "stolen" -- and in a way they'd be right, since the author isn't getting paid for that book -- but I don't see how that could actually equal "theft" in any true legal sense.

Of course, I'm not a lawyer.
posted by meta_eli at 6:49 PM on October 23, 2009

Having worked in a bookstore, any books and magazines you're likely to find in a bookstore dumpster have had their covers stripped, and been reported to the publisher as "unsold and destroyed". Mass market paperbacks that don't sell, and magazines past their time of sale have their covers stripped off and returned to the publisher. The remainder is just thrown away. If the bookstore had to return the whole thing to the publisher, the cost would be prohibitive.

Mass market books have a blurb in the front that reads "If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as 'unsold and destroyed' to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this 'stripped book'."

Heck, even as an employee, you couldn't keep a single stripped book or magazine - that was a firing offense. The whole "only send the cover and we'll give you credit" model only works because the bookstores enforce it at their end.

The publisher's would insist that the books are "stolen" -- and in a way they'd be right, since the author isn't getting paid for that book -- but I don't see how that could actually equal "theft" in any true legal sense.

I am not a lawyer either, but here's my interpretation. The person with the book would possess property for which payment was expected, but not given - the payment having been returned by the publisher to the bookstore. Sounds like theft to me.
posted by booksherpa at 6:55 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Though I'm not sure who's performing the theft in that case. I'd think the bookstore is, because they're getting money back from the publisher for books reported destroyed, but they're not actually destroying the books, merely symbolically defacing them.
posted by hattifattener at 7:17 PM on October 23, 2009

If anything the publisher would blame the store for not having a secure dumpster. It's their contractual responsibility to make sure the stripped books are destroyed, and if they can't perform that task then they are in violation of their contract. I doubt that legally the person that goes through the garbage could be found liable, as long as it would have been legal to go through that garbage in the first place (i.e. it's on a public street.)

In any case, it's a real dick move to do this, so don't.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:49 PM on October 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

AFAIK, the big chain stores ship the stripped books (as opposed to the covers, which are sent to the publishers) off to be recycled. Do you specifically know of book stores with strips in the dumpster, or was the someone speculating?
posted by Cricket at 8:02 PM on October 23, 2009

Well, reselling stripped books is definitely a dick move, and I could see an argument that it amounts to trafficking in stolen goods, but stripped books weren't ever mentioned by the OP. Aside from that kind of situation, I don't see anything wrong with reselling stuff legally salvaged from a dumpster, and (IANAL) I don't think there's a legal bar to it either.
posted by hattifattener at 8:03 PM on October 23, 2009

Actually, I posted the question to arm myself with sound, solid reasoning that would convince another person to stop doing this. They weren't swayed by my reaction of "I think that's sketchy at best."

The seller has been listing books that don't have their covers, too. Mostly magazines, but a few books here and there.

Thanks for all of the input!
posted by meggie78 at 8:32 PM on October 23, 2009

No one is going to buy magazines with their covers torn off on eBay.

As far as the remaindered stuff, the publishers might feel like it was stolen and the book sellers would be in breach of contract if they sold it. But that has no impact on a potential third party.
posted by delmoi at 9:11 PM on October 23, 2009

I think the answer would be that it is probably ok if the dumpster is on public property, and if the books and magazines still have their covers. If the dumpster is on private property, it gets more dicey, because of the trespassing on private property, though if the dumpster near the street, easily accessible, open and unsecured then some would argue the stuff is fair game (I still think its dicey).

However, if the books and magazines are without covers (i.e. stripped, in publishing lingo), they should not be sold. Stripped books are not always destroyed, they are sometimes given away, and passing them on again is ok, just not selling them.

More on selling stripped (coverless) books, previously , and previously.
posted by gudrun at 6:43 AM on October 24, 2009

i once worked for a shady used bookseller who sold stripped magazines and paperbacks for very cheap. we told him over and over again that it was wrong and he would get in trouble. he never did. however, he didn't go on the internet and sell them either, so he could be found out easily. publishers would have had to care what happened in an out-of-the-way place in northern minnesota.

is it wrong? of course. but passing them along for free to be read by others instead of destroyed? i have no problem with that.
posted by RedEmma at 10:18 AM on October 24, 2009

How can you prove that a book without a cover is a "stripped" book? I have a few books in my house. I just tore off the covers. Did I steal those books?

posted by jrockway at 2:53 PM on October 25, 2009

I am not your lawyer.
I am not your lawyer.
I am not your lawyer.

Here in Florida, "theft" is defined by statute:
812.014 Theft.--

(1) A person commits theft if he or she knowingly obtains or uses, or endeavors to obtain or to use, the property of another with intent to, either temporarily or permanently:

(a) Deprive the other person of a right to the property or a benefit from the property.

(b) Appropriate the property to his or her own use or to the use of any person not entitled to the use of the property.
So the question becomes, once it's in the dumpster, whose property is it? At common law, once property was discarded, it was considered "abandoned" and anyone could claim it. So if the dumpster is solely a means of discarding trash, it would be fair to say that the property had been abandoned by the last owner (the bookstore, or the publisher who allowed the bookstore to dispose of it). If, however, the dumpster was not really a dumpster but a container by which a salvage or recycling company received materials from the bookstore - think of it as a "drop box" for the recycling company - there might be an issue that it hadn't been abandoned. However, I think you'd see prominent signs on the receptacle itself, and probably a one-way chute with a locked top. (Our local Habitat for Humanity chapter accepts cans for recycling - you dump them in a box with a trapdoor on the front, it's got a locked panel, and the signs clearly indicate what's going on)

So... in order for it to be theft, at least in my state, I would think that someone would have to establish that it was still their property. And that might be tough to do.

That being said, there might be copyright implications, because the dumpster diver would be distributing a copyrighted work without permission of the author. Normally, you can sell or re-sell books you own, as part of the "first sale" doctrine, but I don't know if that would apply here.

This would make a GREAT law school exam question. Professors, take note!
posted by mikewas at 9:58 AM on October 27, 2009

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