Resale on eBay o.k. under First Sale Doctrine?

Last week the U.S. District Court in Seattle denied Defendant Autodesk’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff Vernor’s case, and held that under the circumstances, the sale of AutoCAD on eBay was protected by the First Sale Doctrine.

Vernor makes a living reselling goods on eBay. He found himself in hot water after trying to sell four copies of Autodesk’s AutoCAD on eBay, and sought a declaratory judgment from the Court that he was entitled to sell these copies of AutoCAD.

In 2005, Vernor bought a copy of AutoCAD at a garage sale. He then listed it on an eBay auction. When Autodesk found out about Vernor’s eBay auction, it sent eBay a notice and takedown request alleging that copyright infringement would occur if Vernor were allowed to sell its product. Vernor filed a counter-notice claiming his proposed sale was lawful. eBay reinstated the auction, and the sale was completed. Fast forward to 2007 when Vernor bought four copies of AutoCAD for sale on eBay. He was able to sell three copies after going through similar notice and takedown / reply correspondence as in 2005. When he tried to sell the fourth copy, eBay suspended his account for one month for alleged “repeat infringement.” He sued for a declaration that his proposed sale was lawful, and that Autodesk’s actions were unfair competition.

Vernor acquired his copies of AutoCAD from CTA who had acquired them from Autodesk as part of a settlement. Each copy contained a Software License Agreement which contained a “nonexclusive, nontransferable license to use the enclosed program … [including prohibiting] transfer … to any other person without Autodesk’s prior written consent.”

Contrary to Autodesk’s assertion, the Court held that Vernor did make out a valid cause of action, and that there is an actual case / controversy between the parties per the Declaratory Judgment Act. Moreover, the Court also held that “If It Applies, the First Sale Doctrine Immunizes Mr. Vernor” since “[t]he first sale doctrine permits a person who owns a lawfully-made copy of a copyrighted work to sell or otherwise dispose of the copy.” The Court also cited with approval Quality King Distribs., Inc. v. L’Anza Research Int’l, Inc., 523 U.S. 135, 152 (1998) which noted that “[w]hen a copyright holder chooses to sell a copy of his work, however, he ‘exhaust[s] his exclusive statutory right to control its distribution’.” The Court noted by way of example that “the first sale doctrine permits a consumer who buys a lawfully made DVD …to resell the copy, but not to duplicate the copy.”

Autodesk claims (as would arguably all software companies) that since it licensed AutoCAD, there was no sale, and thus Vernor is not an “owner” and the First Sale Doctrine does not apply. The Court points out the key question: “whether Autodesk’s transfer of AutoCAD packages to CTA was a sale or a mere transfer of possession pursuant to a license.” If it was a sale, Autodesk would be limited to a breach of contract claim against CTA. The Court notes that there is no bright-line rule as to what constitutes a sale versus a transfer, but that “[i]n comparing the transactions found to be sales in Wise with those that were not, the critical factor is whether the transferee kept the copy acquired from the copyright holder.” (emphasis added). Thus in this case, since CTA, and subsequently Vernor kept the copies of AutoCAD, there was a sale. The Court noted in a footnote that: “[e]ven if Autodesk could revive its “exhausted” distribution rights by reclaiming title to software copies it sold, Autodesk did not reclaim title. It merely required CTA to destroy its copies.” This might mean that software vendors will amend license language to avoid this issue in the future, along with more aggressively policing possession of their software requiring licensees to return copies of software so as to avoid First Sale issues (or that they could provide limited-term renewable licenses which contain a DRM-type “auto-destroy” feature – similar to the way iTunes limits via license the number of machines its customers can upload a song to).

The Court does note a series of decisions which run counter to the reasoning in United States v. Wise, 550 F.2d 1180, 1187 (9th Cir. 1977), but ultimately follows Wise in finding that “the transfer of AutoCAD packages from Autodesk to CTA was a sale with contractual restrictions on use and transfer of the software. Mr. Vernor may thus invoke the first sale doctrine, and his resale of the AutoCAD packages is not a copyright violation.” The Court also notes that other jurisdictions may have reached a different conclusion. This case has important implications for consumers and the software industry, and given the noted Circuit split, might not ride off into the sunset just yet.

William Patry provides an informative commentary here.

Case is: CASE NO. C07-1189RAJ (U.S. Dist Court of Washington at Seattle)

One thought on “Resale on eBay o.k. under First Sale Doctrine?

  1. Tremblant Land

    How does this Vernon guy make money doing this? If hes just reselling products he has bought on EBay already wouldnt he only be making an almost insignificant profit compared to his overhead.

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