First sale: do you own or rent your digital media files?

Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on 2/12/13

By Nick Solish

A report by Billboard Media and Nielsen Soundscan showed that digital music purchases accounted for 50.3 percent of total music sales in 2011, overtaking physical media for the first time. With the rise in digital purchases, music stores and bookstores, along with other retailers, are closing all over the country.

Any person who has ever owned a book or CD knows that either can be resold or given to a friend without violating copyright law. This principle is an important limitation on copyright law known as the first sale doctrine and is codified at 17 U.S.C. Section 109. The United States Attorney’s Manual explains that the first sale doctrine “provides that an individual who knowingly purchases a copy of a copyrighted work from the copyright holder receives the right to sell, display or otherwise dispose of [that particular copy], notwithstanding the interests of the copyright owner. The right to distribute ends, however, once the owner has sold [that particular copy].”

Lawmakers are faced with the question of whether the first sale doctrine should apply to purchases of digital media, including mp3s and eBooks. Digital media transfers invoke two different protected rights under copyright law. The first is the distribution right, allowing the copyright holder exclusive the exclusive right to make a work available to the public by sale, rental, lease or lending. The first sale doctrine acts as an exception to this rule, allowing purchasers of a particular copy of a copyrighted work to sell, rent or lend that copy to another.

Digital media transfers also implicate the reproduction right, which states that no one other than the copyright owner may make any reproductions or copies of the work. A transfer of a physical book or CD does not leave the original owner with a copy. However, every time a digital file is sent via email or saved to a disc a copy is made, leaving both the sender and the receiver with a copy of the file. Thus, the argument is made that first sale doctrine should not apply to digital media purchases because it violates the copyright owner’s exclusive right to make copies of a protected work.

Arguments have been made on both sides as to whether the first sale doctrine should protect digital purchases. Those in favor of extending the first sale doctrine to protect digital purchases argue that transmitting a file from one computer to another and deleting the original copy is the equivalent of selling or lending a book. Opponents of this change argue that the doctrine only protects the distribution right of the consumer and not the additional reproduction right that is an essential part of transferring digital content. They also argue that it would be virtually impossible to test that users had deleted the original copy after transferring a copy, leading to inevitable cheating of the system.

Weighing the above arguments, the U.S. Copyright Office has so far declined to extend first sale protections under Section 109 of the copyright code to digital purchases. “Unlike the physical distribution of digital works on a tangible medium, such as a floppy disk, the transmission of works [through the Internet] interferes with the copyright owner’s control over the intangible work and the exclusive right of reproduction. The benefits to further expansion simply do not outweigh the likelihood of increased harm.”

Some eMedia sellers have creatively taken on this challenge by changing purchasers into licensees instead of owners of content. In recent months, a Norweigan Amazon Kindle owner, Linn Nygaard, lost her Kindle and was told that since Amazon did not have offices in Norway, she would have to provide a U.K. mailing address to receive her replacement. A day later, her account was locked and she was denied access to her eBook library. Within 24 hours, several websites including BoingBoing, The Guardian and TechDirt, carried the story, bringing international attention to the issue. When her story went viral, Amazon eventually restored her access, but merely stated via employee Kinley Pearsall that, “[a]ccount status should not affect any customer’s ability to access their library. If any customer has trouble accessing their content, he or she should contact customer service for help.”

The Amazon Kindle store terms of service state that “Amazon Kindle content is licensed, not sold.” Amazon also provides that violation of any part of the agreement may result in loss of all of your purchased Kindle content: “[Termination]. Your rights under this Agreement will automatically terminate if you fail to comply with any term of this Agreement. In case of such termination, you must cease all use of the Kindle Store and the Kindle Content, and [Amazon may immediately revoke your access to the Kindle Store and the Kindle Content without refund of any fees].”

While it is unclear whether Nygaard did in fact violate the terms of service, many people do not realize that their purchased content is rented and not owned. The same terms of service limit a purchaser’s ability to resell or share content, which might otherwise be protected under the first sale doctrine: “[u]nless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Kindle Content or any portion of it to any third party.”

While there is not yet a digital marketplace for secondary sales of eBooks, the company ReDigi has created a secondary marketplace for reselling music purchased from the iTunes store. ReDigi does not purchase and resell used digital music files, but rather creates a marketplace where users sell music files from one person directly to another.

Launched in October of 2011, ReDigi was sued by Capitol Records in 2012 for copyright infringement. The complaint brings up the question of whether purchasers of digital content are licensees or owners, implicating the first sale doctrine and fair use. ReDigi argued that their Atomic Transaction software allowed the transfer of a digital file without copying it, avoiding a violation of the reproduction right.

Captiol Records argued that ReDigi is liable for copyright infringement, contributory copyright infringement, vicarious copyright infringement, and inducement of copyright infringement. Capitol also claimed that copies of music files were made when first transmitted to ReDigi’s cloud servers, and during sale transactions, thus infringing copyright, and claimed $150,000 of damages per infringement.

While the future of the first sale doctrine in the digital era is still uncertain, quite a bit of money is at stake. A Nielsen study showed over 1.34 billion digital music units were purchased in 2012. If purchasers can resell their songs, this could significantly cut into the market for new digital music. However, if the licensee model becomes the norm, users may have to get used to not “owning” their eBooks and mp3s but rather having entire libraries on long term loan from retailers.

  1. February 20, 2013 at 10:58 pm | #1

    I really tend to go along with all the stuff that is composed throughout
    “First sale: do you own or rent your digital media files?
    The Law of Tomorrow, Today”. Thanks a lot for all of the details.

    Many thanks,Lynette

  2. March 5, 2013 at 4:33 pm | #2

    Dear Nicholas,

    Good stuff-thank you for your thoughtful article.

    • March 5, 2013 at 4:34 pm | #3

      Thanks for reading it Cheryl. I think the entire issue is interesting, but it doesn’t seem as if first sale could ever apply to digital files unless one could be sure that no duplication took place when transferring a file.

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