The First Sale Doctrine under Copyright Law

A copyright owner’s right of distribution is limited by the first sale doctrine, which is an exception to the Copyright Act. The first sale doctrine is a legal principle that limits the rights to control content after a work has been sold for the first time. The first sale doctrine states that once a copyright owner sells a copy of his or her work to another, the copyright owner relinquishes all further rights to sell or otherwise dispose of that copy.

A distinction not always recognized is that ownership of the physical item, such as a book or a CD, is not the same as owning the copyright to the work embodied in that item. Under the first sale doctrine, ownership of a physical copy of a copyrighted work permits the owner of the item to lend, resell, give away and destroy the copyrighted item, but the owner is not granted the right to copy the item in its entirety. That is because the transfer of the physical copy does not include transfer of the copyright to the work. The legal principle applies to physical items as well as digital content that is downloaded over the Internet.

The first sale doctrine allows the purchaser to transfer a particular, legally acquired copy of protected work without permission once it has been obtained. That means the distribution rights of a copyright holder end on that particular copy once the copy is sold. The first sale doctrine prohibits renting and leasing recorded music and computer software, although private non-profit archives and libraries are allowed to lend these items provided they include a copyright notice on the copy. According to the Copyright Act, consumers cannot make copies of computer programs contrary to a license, but may resell what they own.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the first sale doctrine applies to copyrighted goods produced in the United States and sold in foreign markets. The Court held that the first sale doctrine prevents copyright owners from controlling the importation of copyrighted goods sold outside the United States. The Court found that the Copyright Act gives copyright owners the right to control the importation of copies into the United States as an extension of the copyright owner’s exclusive right to distribute copies.

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