The 9th Circuit’s Vernor v. Autodesk test demolishes the first sale doctrine by making its application contingent solely on the licensing agreement written by the copyright holder. Though the Vernor case centers on the distribution of software, there is no limiting principle that prevents the Vernor test from being applied broadly to all copyrighted works. Thus, the Vernor test, if upheld, it could mean the end of all markets for used copyrighted works.
The First Sale Doctrine
The first sale doctrine was established by the Supreme Court in Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus where a book publisher printed the following note on its copyright page: “The price of this book at retail is $1 net. No dealer is licensed to sell it at a less [sic] price and a sale at a less [sic] price will be treated as an infringement of the copyright.” The Supreme Court held that, under existing copyright law, copyright holders have the exclusive right of distribution over the “first sale” of their works, but further distributions are outside of their control. The first sale doctrine was later codified in the Copyright Act.
As a legal principle, first sale strikes a balance between the rights of copyright holder and the rights of the owner of a copy of said material. The doctrine also embodies the general principle in property law that unreasonable constraints on alienation (gifting, selling, etc.) are void.
First sale also promotes the value of free access to information by making out of print copyrighted works widely available and lowering prices through the existence of secondary markets.
Many copyright owners justifiably dislike the first sale doctrine because it prevents them from maintaining a monopoly on their copyrighted works, and it enables secondary markets which tend to drive down prices.
The Vernor Decision and the Sale/License Distinction
The essential facts of Vernor are straightforward. Vernor purchased used software at a garage sale and attempted to sell it on eBay. The copyright holder, Autodesk, filed several DMCA take-down notices with eBay. After some back and forth, Vernor brought a declaratory action in Federal District Court to establish that his resale was protected by first sale doctrine.
The primary legal issue was whether the transfer of Autodesk’s software to the customer who had sold it to Vernor constituted a sale or a licensing. This is the legal hook: if all that was transferred was license, the “first sale” has not occurred and the doctrine does not apply.
The licensee/owner distinction was not clear law prior to Vernor. The District Court in Vernor, determining that there were conflicting precedents on point, applied the 9th Circuit case United States v. Wise and found that the critical factor in the sale/license distinction was whether the purchaser had a right to possess the copyrighted work perpetually or whether he was required to return it to the copyright holder. The court found the right to perpetual possession and thus held that Vernor was covered by the first-sale doctrine.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit held that the license/ownership distinction depended on only three factors: (1) whether the copyright owner specifies that a user is granted a license (2) whether the copyright owner significantly restricts the user’s ability to transfer the software (3) whether the copyright owner imposes notable use restrictions. Applying this test to Autodesk, the court found that the transfer in question was a mere transfer of license and, thus, that Vernor was not protected by the first sale doctrine.
Criticism of the Vernor Test
The problem with the Vernor test is clear: a copyright holder can completely avoid the first sale doctrine by using the term “license” coupled with the “significant” transfer and use restrictions. Thus, under Vernor the application of first sale doctrine depends solely on the discretion of the copyright holder and what “magic words” he chooses to place in the license agreement.
The Vernor test completely undermines the first sale doctrine and all of its underlying policies. First sale is meant to balance between the rights of copyright owners and the rights of owners of copies; Vernor undermines that balance by making its applicability contingent on a copyright holder’s preference. Under the Vernor test, if Bobbs-Merrill Co. had written its note slightly differently, referring to the purchaser as a licensee, and imposing more use and transfer restrictions, the case would have come out the other way—an absolutely preposterous result.
And finally, Vernor effectively negates the principle against unreasonable restrictions on alienation as they apply to copyrightable works. A copyright holder only has to write the “magic words” in a licensing agreement to prevent resale. Thus, there is little standing in the way of copyright holders from unilaterally destroying secondary markets—the used software, book, DVD, CD and videogame market—and maintaining a monopoly on its work.
Currently, the plaintiffs in Vernor are petitioning for an en banc rehearing in the 9th Circuit. If denied, they will likely take it to the Supreme Court. Vernor as it stands today has the potential to fundamentally change not only the legal relevance of the first sale doctrine, but the entire economic, social and legal landscape for copyrightable works.