The Copyright Act grants the owner of a copyright certain rights, including the right to reproduce, to distribute, and to perform and display the copyrighted work. 17 U.S.C. § 106. However, these rights are limited by other sections of the statute. One such limitation to the distribution right is known as the “first sale doctrine,” which states, “the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made  is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord. Id. at § 109(a). For example, if you purchase a DVD at the store, you own a particular copy of a copyrighted work. You can resale the DVD, give it away, or destroy it without infringing the copyright owner’s right of distribution. The same is true for any number of copyrighted works fixed in a variety of mediums, e.g., a CD, cassette, vinyl record, book, photograph, art print, etc. But what about digital content? That is, can you resell a song or movie you lawfully purchase and download?
The United States Copyright Office (“USCO”) has acknowledged digital content differs from traditional physical copies of works. In 2001, the USCO stated that with traditional physical copies, the natural degradation of works (e.g., scratches, fading, etc.) and “the need to transport physical copies of the works” “act as a natural brake on the effect of resales on the copyright owner’s market.” The USCO further stated that these limitations no longer exist with digital transmissions. “Digital information does not degrade…. [and] time, space, effort and cost no longer act as barriers to the movement of copies, since digital copies can be transmitted nearly instantaneously anywhere in the world with minimal effort and negligible cost.” In addition, the USCO recognized the product of a digital transmission “is a new copy in the possession of a new person” and thus the recipient “obtains a new copy, not the same one with which the sender began.” For example, when we email or text a photo, we retain our “particular” copy while the recipient receives a new copy.
In Capitol Records, LLC v. ReDigi Inc., the court, relying in part on the USCO’s report, found that it was impossible to digitally transfer the “particular” copy purchased; any digital transfer creates a new copy of the work, even if the original file is deleted during the transfer. First, the court found the new copy violates the copyright owner’s reproduction rights, to which the first sale doctrine is not a defense. Second, because the thing being sold is an unlawful reproduction and not the “particular” copy originally purchased, the first sale doctrine does not protect such a distribution. In another recent case, the court held that the first sale doctrine was inapplicable until a particular physical copy of copyrighted work was downloaded. Disney Enterprises, Inc. v. Redbox, Automated Retail, LLC (declining to extend the first sale doctrine to the reselling of a digital code that would allow a user to download a copy of the copyrighted work). That is, in order for the first sale doctrine to likely apply the copyrighted work must physically exist as a digital copy but once downloaded, it probably cannot be digitally transferred without creating an unlawful reproduction.
The court in Capital Records also held the owner of a copyrighted work may sell, gift, or otherwise dispose of the hard drive, iPod, or other memory device onto which the digital file was originally downloaded. This solution may alleviate the numerous concerns expressed by the USCO in 2001. However, by forcing the user to dispose of their digital content in this manner it forces the user to dispose of at least part of their electronic device, which in all likelihood includes digital copies of multiple copyrighted works. In other words, in order to be protected by the first sale doctrine the owner of the copyrighted work must dispose of significantly more than he or she initially bargained for.
As digital downloads increase in popularity, the importance of this issue will continue to grow. The Second Circuit, where the Capital Records case is currently on appeal, is poised to give us further guidance by creating the first circuit level case law on digital first sale. However, when the Digital Millennium Copyright act was introduced nearly 20 years ago, it was acknowledged that this was “only the beginning of Congress’ evaluation of the impact of the digital age on copyrighted works.” Ultimately, it may again be time for Congress to evaluate this impact.