Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2011 Issue

Could Reselling Used Books Become Illegal?

Autodeskcase

The Appeals Court came down on the side of restricting the sale of used items.

We recently received a message from a “Ken,” self-described “Overworked Lead Blogger” at Heroic Times, a blog website. You may have seen it too as he sent the message to numerous used and antiquarian book related sites. It has to do with a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit (west coast) that was effectively allowed to stand by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that decision, which is not quite the same as affirming it, but allows it to be almost the law of the land, and definitely the law on the west coast.

The case had to do with the reselling of computer software. The decision essentially prohibited people from reselling computer software where such is forbidden in the terms of the original “sale” (or perhaps “lease”). Computer software may not be a big item for sellers of used books, but Ken's concern is over what happens if book publishers start printing such prohibitions of resale in the books they publish. Can they now legally shut off the sale of used books going forward?

The issue of resale of copyrighted material goes back to a Supreme Court decision in 1908. Evidently, some publishers must have felt that since they held a copyright on a book, a purchaser of that book could not resell it to another without violating the copyright. The Supreme Court said no, developing something known as the “first-sale” doctrine. Essentially what it said is that once the copyright holder has made the “first sale” of a specific item, the buyer is free to do as he pleases with that item, including reselling it. He can't make copies of that book and resell them. That violates the copyright. However, he may resell the original copy for which he paid. A year later, Congress passed a statute that reaffirmed that court decision, and while it has been updated over the years, such as adding phonograph records, it basically maintains the “first-sale” doctrine as the law of the land.

Starting in the 1970s, and greatly expanding ever since, a new, ephemeral product began to be sold – computer software. It usually was placed on some type of physical object, like a floppy disk or later a CD, but it wasn't a physical object in quite the same way as a book. In fact, often it was meant to be copied, that is, copied from the disk or CD to a computer's hard drive. Makers of this software were concerned that the fact that people needed to copy the software to a hard drive to use it would allow them to share that software with their friends, who did not pay for it. You could buy one set, but then copy it onto an unlimited number of computers. Sure, you could share your books and records with your friends, but you couldn't both use them at the same time. With computer software, your friends could copy it to their computers and hundreds of people could use that one set of software at the same time. This, naturally, looked very unfair to the people who designed and sold software.

Their response was to create limitations – you could not resell the software to others. Since this appears a violation of the “first sale” rule, they came up with a better idea. They would not sell the software, or the disk on which it was placed. They would lease it. Now, it's more like the car or house you lease. You don't get to sell it when the lease is up. You have to return it to the owner.

What the software makers were attempting to accomplish was something of an end-run around the “first sale” rule. Since that only applies to sales, they would simply never sell software again. They would lease it. The protection they sought may well be appropriate for something as ephemeral as software, and maybe not. That isn't for us to say. What leasing would accomplish, if upheld, is effectively eliminate the consumer protection afforded by the “first-sale” doctrine. The transaction may essentially work like a sale – you keep the product, the lease never ends – but since it is called a “lease” rather than a “sale,” the manufacturer is able to skirt the protections of the “first-sale” doctrine.

This was how the trial court saw the “lease” - a sale disguised as a lease. At issue was a set of Autodesk software that an eBay merchant was offering for sale online. Autodesk argued that this product was only leased, not sold, so the possessor (as opposed to an owner) had no right to sell it. The trial court looked at the circumstances and decided this was really more like a sale, and so “first sale” applied. The transaction may have been described by Autodesk as a lease, but it smelled like a sale. There was no time limit on the lease, there were no ongoing payments like a typical lease (just an upfront price typical of a sale), and the “lessee” was never expected to return the disk or software to Autodesk when finished using it. It had all of the features of a sale, except that it was called a “lease.” The trial court ruled that the possessor/eBay merchant really was the owner and therefore had the right to sell the software/disk.

This decision was reversed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Along with the parties to this transaction itself, some heavyweights made arguments on appeal. The Software & Information Industry Association, which includes many of the largest software makers among its members, and the Motion Picture Association of America sided with Autodesk. Ebay and the American Library Association sided with the seller. While acknowledging that a sales-like nature of a transaction is a factor, the Appeals Court essentially concluded that where the language of the contract clearly stated that it was a lease, then a lease it was. So long as the manufacturer specified that it was only granting a license to use the product, specifically restricted the right to transfer the product, and imposed restrictions on the product's use, then the transaction will be recognized as a lease, not a sale. Effectively, it allows a manufacturer, so long as they place the right language in the fine print, to avoid the application of the “first-sale” rule and prohibit their customers from reselling their software when they no longer want it for themselves.


When the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, it let this ruling stand, and while it may decide to hear a similar case sometime in the future, and perhaps overturn it, that does not appear very likely.


So what does all this have to do with books? Well, more and more books are being offered as software now anyway. It is easy enough for those selling electronic books to “lease” them instead, saying the “lessee” has a right to keep their copy for life, never make any further payments, and never return it, but they are forbidden to transfer their electronic copy to anyone else. It would shut off the used electronic book trade. But, this is probably not Ken's major concern, since it's hard to imagine there will ever be a trade in collectible electronic books. The question is, why can't publishers place similar restrictions on printed books? They could simply print on each copy that it is available only for lease, and may not be transferred or sold to anyone else. Are words printed on paper somehow different from software imbedded in a disk in terms of the requirements of this decision? Not obviously. A lease is a lease by this decision, and it is not obvious why a publisher of printed books cannot avail itself of the benefits it provides any more than the software manufacturer.

Of course this would not apply to all of the old books out there now containing no such warnings, but books printed in the future could possess such limitations. Since most book buyers are probably not thinking of the eventual disposal/resale of their new books when they buy them, they just want to read them, they likely would accept the terms if a “lease” is all that is available. Years from now, the collector would be out of luck. The publisher could prevent the copy of the rare first edition, found in the attic of the long dead “lessee,” from ever being resold. The heirs could be forced to return it to the publisher, who would be the only one who could legally sell the book to a collector, and for a handsome price.

The court did add a note for those who are concerned about where this decision may lead. “These are serious contentions on both sides,” they pointed out, and “Congress is free, of course, to modify the first sale doctrine and the essential step defense if it deems these or other policy considerations to require a different approach.” That they are, but as the Google Books mess has shown, Congress is reluctant to do much of anything any more. It is Congress' job to debate the weighty issues and decide what is the right public policy, but there seems little indication that Congress will do much of anything that doesn't serve some lobbyist's special interest. Nor is there any guarantee that if they did, the Supreme Court wouldn't find a law designed to protect regular people “unconstitutional.” In 1908, when the “first-sale” doctrine first came down, Teddy Roosevelt was President, and the old Bull Moose made sure that government worked for all of the people. 1908 was a long time ago.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams: Treasures from the Eric C. Caren Collection: How History Unfolds on Paper, Part VII (Online). March 6-14, 2019</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Albert Einstein A remarkable letter on God in English, one of his most eloquent and quoted, 1 p, July 2, 1945. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Benjamin Lincoln's commission as Major General in the Continental Army, February 19th, 1777. $60,000 to $90,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Broadside. A Poem Upon the Bloody Engagement That Was Fought on Bunker's-Hill. 1775. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Early, full printing of the Star-Spangled Banner in The Yankee, October 7, 1814. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Paul Revere. Engraving, “The Boston Massacre Perpetrated on March 5, 1770," in <i>Massachusett's Calendar 1772.</i> $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Bonhams: Treasures from the Eric C. Caren Collection: How History Unfolds on Paper, Part VII (Online). March 6-14, 2019</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Earliest known newspaper coverage of Babe Ruth, "a St Mary's schoolboy," Baltimore, April 4, 1914. $6,000 to $9,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Franklin, Benjamin. <i>The Independent Whig.</i> First Magazine Published in America, Philadelphia: Keimer, 1723-4. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Smith, Joseph. <i>The Book of Mormon.</i> Palmyra: Printed by E.B. Grandin for the Author, 1830. First printing. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Last Words of Joseph Smith. Autograph Letter Signed from a Mormon disciple, conveying a contemporary account of the Prophet's final words, Nauvoo, July 27, 1844. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> John Brown's Body. Autograph Letter Signed from the daughter of John Brown attempting to arrange the return of her father's body, North Elba, Essex Co, NY, November 29, 1859. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Powell Expedition. Autograph diary of Rhodes C. Allen kept during the Powell Expedition of 1868, June 29, 1868 - November 16, 1868. $20,000 to $40,000
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Walt Whitman. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> First edition, first issue, SIGNED in block letters by Whitman. 1855. $200,000 to $300,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Isaac Newton's copy of John Greave's <i>Pyramidographia,</i> London, 1646. $50,000 to $70,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Colonel John Mosby. Robert E. Lee's autograph letter to Samuel Cooper reporting on Mosby's exploits, with Cooper's autograph note ordering his appointment to Major.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Gyula Halasz Brassai. Large archive of autograph and typed letters, over 260, to his family including his wife Gilberte, 1947-1978. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 12:</b> Archive of drawings and letters from Harper Lee to Charles Carruth, including an inscribed first edition of <i>To Kill a Mockingbird.</i> $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> VESALIUS, ANDREAS. 1514-1564. <i>De humani corporis fabrica libri septem.</i> Basel: Johannes Oporinus, June 1543. $300,000 to $500,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. 1578-1657. <i>De motu cordis & sanguinis in animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Leiden: Joannis Maire, 1639. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 11:</b> BERENGARIO DA CARPI, GIACOMO. 1460-1530. <i>Isagogae breves perlucide ac uberrimae in Anatomiam humani corporis.</i> Bologna: Benedictus Hectoris, 15 July 1523. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams NY, Mar 11:</b> FRANKLIN, BENJAMIN. 1706-1790. <i>Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America…</i> London, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams NY, Mar 11:</b> BENIVIENI, ANTONIO. 1443-1502. <i>De abditis nonnullis ac mirandis morborum et sanationum causis.</i>Florence: Filippo Giunta, 1507. $8,000 to $12,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, <i>El Ingenioso Hildalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha . . . Nueva Edición,</i> first Ibarra edition, Madrid, 1780. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Illuminated Prayer Book in Latin and French, France, 1530-40s. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin, France, mid-15th century. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b><br><i>Die Ernsthaffte Christenpflicht,</i> earliest known edition of the first complete Mennonite prayer book, 1708. $300 to $500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Georg Agricola, <i>De ortu & causis subterraneorum Lib V.,</i> first edition, Basel, 1546. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Frederick Ruysch, <i>Icon durae matris in concava [convexa] superficie visae,</i> with 2 mezzotints by Jan Ladmiral, first edition, Amsterdam, 1737. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, <i>Eine Neue Art von Strahlen,</i> Würzburg, 1895. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Pietro Carrera, <i>Il Gioco de gli Scacchi,</i> first edition, Militello, 1617. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> William Lithgow, <i>The Totall Discourse, of the Rare Adventures</i> [etc.], London, 1632. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Michel de Nostradamus, <i>The True Prophecies or Prognostications,</i> first complete edition in English, London, 1672. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Pseudo-Methodius, <i>De revelatione facta . . . beato Methodio,</i> Basel, 1504. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Hrabanus Maurus, <i>De laudibus sancte crucis opus,</i> Pforzheim, 1503. $1,000 to $2,000.
  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Autographs & Memorabilia. February 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Autograph album featuring signatures by prominent actors, politicians, musicians and authors, including Rudolph Valentino. £1,000 to £1,500
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> An extremely rare working radio script for Crazy People No 29, the first series of <i>The Goon Show.</i> £600 to £800
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Manuscript prayer book, in German. 8vo, 1755 £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Italian Manuscript on Geometry, with diagrams, 18th century. £500 to £700
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Ornithology, Zoology & Voyages. February 27, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Thorburn (Archibald). Sparrowhawk, original watercolour & gouache, signed & dated lower right, 1917. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Burton (Sir Richard Francis). <i>Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah.</i> 3 vol., FIRST EDITION, 1855-56. £1,000 to £1,500
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> [Mount (Richard) & Page (Thomas)]. <i>The English Pilot. Describing the Sea-Coasts…</i> 31 engraved maps, W. & J. Mount, T. Page, 1756 £4000 to £6000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Ornithology, Zoology & Voyages. February 27, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> D’apres De Mannevillette (Jean-Baptiste Nicolas Denis). <i>Le Neptune Oriental.</i> Paris & Brest, [1775 – 1781]. £10,000 to £15,000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Loring (Josiah). Terrestrial Globe Containing all the Late Discoveries and Geographical Improvements. Boston, Gilman Joslin, 1846, £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Shelley (G. E., Capt.). <i>A Monograph of the Nectariniidae, or Family of Sun-birds,</i> FIRST EDITION, by the Author, 1876-80. £4,000 to £6,000

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