Copies, Rights, and Copyrights: Really Owning your Digital Stuff

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Our new PKThinks white paper takes a look at one aspect of the changing relationship between copyright owners and owners of copyrighted things: the first sale doctrine.


Today, we’re releasing a white paper called “Copies, Rights, and Copyrights.” It’s about the conflict between the owner of a copy of a work—like you, when you buy a paperback—and the owner of the copyright in that work – the author, or the author’s publisher. It’s often an invisible conflict, because to us, the basic boundaries in that relationship are so customary as to be obvious: the copyright holder gets to prevent the book being copied, and the owner of the copy gets to use that copy any other way she wants.

But things get trickier as we start looking at digital copies—in particular, copies that are sold as downloads instead of on physical media like CDs or DVDs.

That’s because most of the ways in which we use digital media require making copies—just reading an ebook or listening to an mp3 will make additional copies within the device as it is being buffered or cached. Transferring ownership of a copy from one person to another also requires making copies—unless you’re handing over your entire hard drive to someone.

But copyright law doesn’t necessarily recognize the difference between these copies and copies made for illicit purposes. So we’re left with a system where, legally, technological advancements lead to more restrictions, instead of fewer.

Traditionally, the conflict between the owner of a copy and the owner of a copyright was resolved through the first sale doctrine—a part of the law that says that if a copy of a work was lawfully made, the owner of the copy can distribute and display it however he wants. “Copies, Rights, and Copyrights” takes a look at some of the history of the first sale doctrine, and explores some of the ways that it could be adapted and updated for a digital world.

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