ReDigi Loses: You Can't Resell Your MP3s (Unless You Sell Your Whole Hard Drive)
from the a-big-first-sale-loss dept
This is hardly a surprise at all. In fact, we expected this kind of ruling all along. ReDigi, the company that was trying to build a “market” around “used MP3s” has lost at the district court. As you may recall, ReDigi tried to set up a system that monitors your own files, so that if you “sell” a used MP3, you have to make sure it’s been removed from your own system. As you might imagine, that system is not foolproof, but some effort has been made (and it’s only allowed for reselling MP3s ReDigi can prove you’ve purchased, such as via iTunes, and not for files just ripped from CDs). While I fully expected ReDigi to lose, the ruling is still fairly distressing in just how badly it distorts other parts of the law, which may harm other, even more reasonable uses. Hopefully, ReDigi will appeal and fight back against the more extreme interpretation from the district court here.
First, the court looks into the question of whether or not a transfer of a copyrighted file, where only one file remains at the end, still violates the “reproduction” right. That is, if Bob transfers a file to Alice, and Bob’s copy of the file is immediately deleted, is that still a reproduction under the Copyright Act? The court says yes:
…courts have not previously addressed whether the unauthorized transfer of a digital music file over the Internet – where only one file exists before and after the transfer – constitutes reproduction within the meaning of the Copyright Act. The Court holds that it does.
The Copyright Act provides that a copyright owner has the exclusive right “to reproduce the copyrighted work in . . . phonorecords.” Copyrighted works are defined to include, inter alia, “sound recordings,” which are “works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds.” Such works are distinguished from their material embodiments. These include phonorecords, which are the “material objects in which sounds . . . are fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the sounds can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” Thus, the plain text of the Copyright Act makes clear that reproduction occurs when a copyrighted work is fixed in a new material object.
Of course, that same bit of the Copyright Act also makes clear that “copying” does not apply to purely digital files, but the court tap dances around that argument. Basically, it says whether or not there are more in the world is meaningless. All that matters is if a copy was made, even if the original was destroyed.
Simply put, it is the creation of a new material object and not an additional material object that defines the reproduction right. The dictionary defines “reproduction” to mean, inter alia, “to produce again” or “to cause to exist again or anew.” See Merriam-Webster Collegiate Edition 994 (10th ed. 1998) (emphasis added). Significantly, it is not defined as “to produce again while the original exists.” Thus, the right “to reproduce the copyrighted work in . . . phonorecords” is implicated whenever a sound recording is fixed in a new material object, regardless of whether the sound recording remains fixed in the original material object.
Basically, under this interpretation, you can never “transfer” a digital file. You can only make a reproduction under copyright law. And, yes, computers transfer files by making copies of them, but it seems a bit ridiculous that the whole concept of a transfer can be wiped out because of that. In fact, by this interpretation, even streaming (which still involves all the data being temporarily copied to your local computer) would count as reproduction. ReDigi pointed this out, noting the possibility of merely cleaning up your own hard drive being considered infringing, but the court buys Capitol Records’s (EMI) argument that such uses are protected under other theories.
Moving on to the question of distribution, ReDigi doesn’t deny that it’s distributing files, but says that it’s protected by fair use and (more importantly), first sale. Again, however, the court doesn’t buy it. Part of the issue may be that ReDigi “abandoned” an argument it made earlier that merely transferring a file to a cloud locker for personal use is fair use, so it’s left arguing that other aspects of its service are covered by fair use, but that’s much more difficult under the basic four factors test. On this part, it’s not that surprising that ReDigi failed to convince the court, as I’m not sure I see the fair use argument either.
The first sale part is where it gets more troubling. Effectively, the court wipes out first sale for digital goods, arguing that because (as above) each transfer is not really a “transfer” but a “copy,” first sale doesn’t apply. That is, first sale only applies to the initial “copy” “made under this title.” But, the court argues, because the sale involves making a new copy, it’s not covered by first sale.
In addition, the first sale doctrine does not protect ReDigi’s distribution of Capitol’s copyrighted works. This is because, as an unlawful reproduction, a digital music file sold on ReDigi is not “lawfully made under this title.” … Moreover, the statute protects only distribution by “the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord . . . of that copy or phonorecord.” Here, a ReDigi user owns the phonorecord that was created when she purchased and downloaded a song from iTunes to her hard disk. But to sell that song on ReDigi, she must produce a new phonorecord on the ReDigi server. Because it is therefore impossible for the user to sell her “particular” phonorecord on ReDigi, the first sale statute cannot provide a defense. Put another way, the first sale defense is limited to material items, like records, that the copyright owner put into the stream of commerce. Here, ReDigi is not distributing such material items; rather, it is distributing reproductions of the copyrighted code embedded in new material objects, namely, the ReDigi server in Arizona and its users’ hard drives. The first sale defense does not cover this any more than it covered the sale of cassette recordings of vinyl records in a bygone era.
That seems silly. Selling a legally purchased MP3 is absolutely nothing like selling a cassette recording of a vinyl record. When ReDigi points out that, under this interpretation, digital files have no first sale rights, the court hits back that this is not true. After all, it argues, you can still sell your hard drive with the original file on it. No, seriously. That’s the court’s response.
Section 109(a) still protects a lawful owner’s sale of her “particular” phonorecord, be it a computer hard disk, iPod, or other memory device onto which the file was originally downloaded. While this limitation clearly presents obstacles to resale that are different from, and perhaps even more onerous than, those involved in the resale of CDs and cassettes, the limitation is hardly absurd – the first sale doctrine was enacted in a world where the ease and speed of data transfer could not have been imagined.
The court argues that if such an interpretation is ridiculous (though it argues it is not) then it’s up to Congress to fix it.
With that out of the way, the court says that ReDigi is guilty of direct infringement, contributory infringement (“the court finally concludes that ReDigi’s service is not capable of substantial noninfringing uses“), and vicarious infringement. Basically, a triple play and ReDigi is completely out of the inning. While I’m still not convinced about the fair use argument, the court basically killing off first sale for digital goods is a pretty big problem, and hopefully higher courts (or, dare we dream, Congress?) will fix such an obviously nutty ruling.