ISBN and Criminal Liability

What is a Crime?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a crime is an illegal act that can be punished by the government, especially if it is a severe violation of the law. Crimes are actions or failures to act that are punishable because they break the law. These can be defined by written laws (statutes) or, in some places, by traditional laws (common law).

Crimes are generally broken down into two categories:

– Mala in se: These are acts that are inherently evil or wrong, like murder or theft.

– Mala prohibita: These are acts that are wrong because they are prohibited by law, like jaywalking or parking violations.

To consider something a crime, it typically needs:

1. Legality: There must be a law stating that the act is a crime.

2. Actus Reus: There must be a physical act or a failure to act.

3. Mens Rea: There must be a guilty mind or intent behind the act.

4.Criminal Intent: The person must have intended to commit the act or understood its consequences.

5. Punishment: The state punishes the crime through fines, imprisonment, or other penalties.

 What is an Offense?

In the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the term offense refers to anything made punishable by the code. So, an offense is basically another word for a crime, but it’s specifically defined by the IPC in Section 40.

What is an Illegal Act?

An illegal act is anything that is forbidden by law. This includes things that are offenses under the IPC and acts that could lead to civil action. If a person is legally required to do something and they don’t do it, that omission can also be considered illegal (Section 43 IPC).

 What is an ISBN?

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a unique identifier used in the publishing industry to catalogue and manage books. It helps to identify each edition and variation of a book, making it easier for publishers, bookstores, and libraries to track and manage their inventory.

Legal Status of ISBN

An ISBN does not carry any legal force. It is not required by law for publishing a book, and its primary purpose is for logistical convenience. This means that using an ISBN incorrectly or not using one at all is not illegal.

Cheating and Criminal Liability in Context

Under Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code, cheating involves deceiving someone to gain something valuable. However, since ISBNs are free and meant for organizational purposes, mistakes or misuse of ISBNs do not meet the criteria for cheating. There is no financial gain or intent to deceive, so there is no criminal liability associated with ISBN errors.

Examining ISBN and Criminal Liability

Given the above definitions and the purpose of ISBNs, it’s clear that they don’t inherently lead to criminal charges. ISBNs are simply tools used to make the book business easier. They are not required by any law, and errors in their use do not qualify as offenses under any interpretation of the law.

For example, if a publisher assigns an incorrect ISBN to a book, this does not result in any legal violation. The publisher has no incentive to use an incorrect ISBN, as ISBNs are free and easy to obtain. Therefore, any errors are seen as administrative mistakes, not criminal acts.

In P.B. Desai vs State Of Maharashtra & Anr (2013),  the Indian Supreme Court discussed the importance of intent (mens rea) in determining criminal liability. They emphasized that criminal punishment should only be applied to actions that demonstrate a deliberate intention to cause harm. This principle reinforces the idea that errors in ISBN usage, lacking any intent to deceive or harm, do not warrant criminal liability.


The ISBN system is for organizing and tracking books. Despite its importance, there are no legal requirements mandating its use. Consequently, not using an ISBN or making mistakes in assigning one is not considered an illegal act, an offense, or a crime. These errors are seen as administrative issues rather than legal violations, ensuring that publishers and authors are not subject to criminal liability for ISBN-related mistakes. According to the author, ISBN usage remains a practical necessity but lacks any legal enforcement.

Disclaimer: The author disowns any liability for errors or omissions in this explanation.

Author:Β Vipin Wason, Advocate- Delhi High Court

Mob: 9811227766

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