Everything old is new again?

Some intellectual property issues are hardy perennials; they bloom anew with great regularity. One such issue is the doctrine of first sale, which in other countries and other contexts is sometimes called the doctrine of exhaustion. However it is named, it refers to the nearly universal practice of holding that the “first sale” of a particular embodiment of intellectual property – a copy of a book or a CD – “exhausts” the exclusive right of the copyright holder to control further distribution of that embodiment. It is the right of first sale that allows used book stores, video rentals and lending libraries to flourish.

First sale has never been popular with the content industry; both licensing arrangements and DRM can be seen as modern attempts to exercise control over the downstream use and distribution of IP beyond what is allowed by copyright law. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, in fact, the Supreme Court had to deal with a case involving what I like to call the first “end user licensing agreement.” In Bobbs Merrill Co. v. Straus (1908), the Court found that an attempt by a publisher to mandate the retail price at which stores could sell the book “The Castaway” by Hallie Rives failed because of the doctrine we now call first sale. The publisher of this obscure novel inserted a “requirement” underneath the copyright notice that the retail price of the book must not be less than one dollar, and sued the store owned by Isidor Straus – Macy’s – when it sold copies for less.

In the past few weeks, two cases have been decided, one in the copyright arena and one dealing with patents, that again remind us of the continuing importance of first sale/exhaustion in a balanced system of IP protection.

In Universal Music v. Augusto the facts sounded strangely similar to Bobbs Merrill; a music company tried to distribute free promotional CDs of its music and prevent the resale of those CDs by simply placing a notice on the face of the disc. In granting summary judgment for the E-Bay vendor who resold some of this CDs, Judge Otero of the Central District of California noted that this kind of restraint on subsequent transfer had been rejected over 100 years ago. Also implicated rejected in this decision is the attempt to create a license transaction merely by a one-sided statement that that was what was occurring. The court rightly found that the CDs were transferred to the recipients (by gift, in this case) and were therefore subject to the exhaustion of the distribution right.

The patent case, Quanta Computer v. LG Electronics, also involved an attempt to control subsequent uses of a product embodying a patented process after the initial sale of that product. LG sued to collect a licensing fee from Quanta because Quanta used chips containing a process patented by LG, even though those chips were manufactured by an intermediary company (Intel) that had itself licensed the process from LG. In essence, LG wanted a cut on every downstream product that contained the already-authorized chips, but the Supreme Court said no: “The authorized sale of an article that substantially embodies a patent exhausts the patent holder’s rights and prevents the patent holder from invoking patent law to control postsale use of the article.”

As sturdy as these recurring issues are, however, we should not conclude that copyright law is ticking along without difficult, adequately resolving conflicts in the 21st century with its arsenal of 20th century doctrines. The current Issue of “Cato Unbound,” on “the future of copyright,” does a superb job of alerting us, if we didn’t already see it, that copyright law is struggling to keep up in the digital age. The lead essay by Rasmus Fleischer, begins with the fascinating point that in the 21st century we have moved to trying to regulate tools with our copyright law rather than content. In a digital age, he points out, many of the distinctions our law relies upon, like the difference between copying and distribution, no longer make any sense. As Fleischer says, “the distinction is ultimately artificial, since the same data transfer takes place in each.” This point undermines the comforting thought, expressed above, that first sale, for example, is still doing its job in copyright law, since the move to a digital environment makes application of an exception to the distribution right, but not the right of reproduction, highly problematic.

Fleischer’s article goes on to paint a fairly gloomy picture about a “copyright utopia” being advocated by the content industries, especially big entertainment companies, that could seriously undermine both technological innovation and civil liberties. He ends with the “urgent question regard[ing] what price we will have to pay for upholding the phantasm of universal copyright.”

In a reply essay, “Two Paths for Copyright Law,” Timothy B Lee suggests that things may not be as bleak as Fleischer suggests. He reminds us that it is only a very recent development that anyone has even considered question the legality of private, non-commercial copying for home use, and he opines that the effort to now assert control over such copying has already proved a failure. The alternative — the second path for copyright — is, as has been suggested before in this space, the development on new business models, which will largely be funded by advertising, to meet the non-commercial demand for content. The role of copyright law, in this scenario, is to protect content creators from unfair and unauthorized commercial exploitation of the works by competitors. It is commercial competition that copyright is intended to regulate, he suggests, not use by consumers. And he catalogs a wide variety of business models already being adopted by the major content industries, even as the pursue lawsuits against customers and strict laws from Congress, that seem to recognize the inevitable move towards a market solution, rather than a legal one, to the challenges posed by new technologies.

Some copyright doctrine remains unchanged over a hundred years, yet we have to adapt to rapid innovation even as we preserve what works in our law. The essays by Fleischer and Lee paint two different pictures of the future of copyright; the attraction of Lee’s vision, for me, is that it looks at what copyright has traditionally been designed to accomplish, the control of commercial competition, and offers hope that if we stay focused on that role for the law, the market will adjust to the technological innovations for users that currently frighten the content industries so.

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