What are you purchasing when you buy a print of Picasso's Guernica? The piece of paper it is printed on, several courts have replied. In these instances, courts have created a pragmatic legal fiction that allows for the transfer of a copy of a work while the author retains his or her rights and privileges under copyright law. Therefore, the purchaser of the Guernica print could resell his or her legally created print of the painting on the secondary market. This is the essence of the First Sale Doctrine of the U.S. Copyright Act. This practice breaks down, however, when applied to copies of intellectual property that consist of pure data, as is the case with software purchased through digital distribution platforms. Through these platforms, software is downloaded from the internet and there is nothing to symbolize a transfer of physical property ownership as there is in the sale of a print of a painting. This lack of a tangible medium has allowed publishers to characterize the transfer of pure data as a license rather than a sale of property. Publishers can use these licenses to strip property rights from consumers, such as the right of resale under the First Sale Doctrine. This practice insulates the software publisher from losses to the resale market to the detriment of consumers who would benefit from purchasing used software for a discounted price. In the continuing transition to a digital world where a great deal of business is done in pure data, rights could easily be stripped from a purchaser's property interests that would be fully protected in a more traditional medium. It is important that courts recognize a property right in this data to protect the rights of consumers during this transition. The First Sale Doctrine must be applied to all software transactions--not just those conducted through physical media such as compact disks and DVD's--so that all transactions are treated equally. Publishers should not be able to take rights away from consumers simply by conducting business through a popular new medium that is purely digital. Until recently, a trend was developing across several circuits that favored a digital First Sale Doctrine for software. In September 2010, the Ninth Circuit dealt a serious blow to this movement when it issued its decision in Vernor v. Autodesk, Inc. This decision calls for a strict constructionist approach to the interpretation of software licensing agreements. A right of resale that would be protected under the First Sale Doctrine in a different medium, such as paper, is no longer protected under this precedent, as this right can be eliminated through the use of a licensing contract. This circuit split comes at a time when an increasing amount of software transactions are conducted via digital distribution. Software purchasers are uncertain of their rights in this new medium, and discussion of the ownership privileges that consumers have in downloaded software has become a subject of public speculation with no certain answer at the present time. Popular concern and differing judicial approaches converge in this topic, resulting in a scenario that is certain to reach courts with increasing frequency over the coming years. This Comment stretches beyond the world of legal scholarship and explores a topic that is receiving mainstream attention. The legal community will benefit from the simple summary of the evolving state of the First Sale Doctrine contained herein. Furthermore, this explanation will prove helpful for mainstream media reporters, bloggers, lobbyists, publishers, consumers, or anyone else seeking background information and solutions to make for a more informed public discussion of the rights that consumers and publishers have in downloaded software.
Matthew J. Turchyn,
It Looks Like a Sale; It Quacks Like a Sale…But It's Not? An Argument for the Application of the Duck Test in a Digital First Sale Doctrine,
5 J. Bus. Entrepreneurship & L.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/jbel/vol5/iss1/2