Appeals Court Destroys First Sale; You Don't Own Your Software Anymore
from the let's-see-some-licenses dept
Earlier this year, we noted that the 9th Circuit appeals court was facing three separate important cases about the “first sale doctrine.” We also warned that the 9th Circuit can be wacky at times, and its first ruling of the three confirms that, by effectively wiping out the first sale doctrine and stating that buying a piece of software is not really buying a piece of software — and that, in many cases, you’ve merely licensed it and cannot resell it. The key point:
We hold today that a software user is a licensee rather than an owner of a copy where the copyright owner (1) specifies that the user is granted a license; (2) significantly restricts the user’s ability to transfer the software; and (3) imposes notable use restrictions.
The full ruling is here:
Last year, the district court sided with Vernor, saying that Autodesk had no right to restrict his first sale rights (which allow you to resell a legally owned copyrighted product without first getting permission from the copyright holder), and that Autodesk’s “license” was really a license in name only, since at no point did the possessor of the software have to return it. Instead, the court pointed out that when you bought AutoCAD, there really was a transfer of ownership.
Tragically, the appeals court disagrees with that, and effectively opens the door to effectively killing off the entire concept of the first sale doctrine, by highlighting the rather simple steps anyone needs to take to make sure any “sale” is really considered a “license,” and thus removing the first sale rights. Basically, you just have to say there’s a license and that “license” has to have a few rather simple things in it. You know all those stories about video game companies hating the used game market? Well, video game companies just got their “kill the secondary market free” card from the 9th Circuit. Of course, as we’ve pointed out, having a secondary market tends to increase the value of the primary market, so software companies (and others selling copyrighted works) may wish to think carefully before wiping out the secondary markets.
The court does note that this ruling could have quite a negative impact, but says that it’s ruling based on what the law says, and suggests that perhaps Congress may wish to revisit this issue (fat chance of that happening, of course). While it is true that a court must rule within the law, even if it thinks the end result is bad, I think that the court here is using that as an excuse. The more you look at the details, the more you realize this is a license-in-name-only, and (as the lower court realized) the court could easily make that point and stay within the law, protecting these important first sale rights.
That said, this case is hardly over. Vernor’s lawyer on the case, Greg Beck from Public Citizen has already announced plans to ask the court to reconsider the case en banc (i.e., with the full panel of judges, rather than just the three judge panel who heard the case), and even if that fails, this case will certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court. Given the two other first sale cases soon to be heard, combined with what appears to be (even if the court denies it) a circuit split with at least the 2nd Circuit on first sale issues, hopefully the Supreme Court will set the record straight and reinstate first sale rights for software. It would be great, of course, for Congress to just step in and fix things, but it’s difficult to remember the last time Congress got something right when it came to copyright law… and with lobbying giants like the MPAA siding with Autodesk on this one, you can bet that no one in Congress will be able to secure enough votes to fix things.
This ruling is pretty depressing if you actually believe in property rights. It shows, once again, how copyright is not a property right, but often quite the opposite: restricting what people can do with their own property.