So, finally a ruling on whether promotional music compact discs can be resold without violating copyright. The answer? Yes, because of the first-sale doctrine. UMG Recordings, Inc. v. Augusto, Case No. 08-55998 (9th Cir., Jan. 4, 2011) (Canby, J.).
UMG Records distributed promotional CDs. They sent them to critics, radio personnel, and others for promotion. Of course, they claimed the cd was only for those to whom they sent them: acceptance of the cd is a license; not for resale; promotional use only; resale or transfer is not allowed and may be punishable under federal and state laws. Very imposing.
I had always wondered, since way back in the day, when a local general manager of a Fort Wayne tv/radio empire gave me a new Iggy Pop album sent to them for promotion, whether I had been the unwitting recipient of a copyright violation or some kind of crime. Cal wasn't worried; but, I never wanted to risk my neck for Iggy Pop.
The question is answered. Despite the warning of the Dire Wolf on the recordings sent, unsolicited and for free, we need not beg "don't murder me record company, please don't murder me," although Mr Augusto was dragged to the Ninth Circuit. His sin? Ebay.
The district court granted Augusto summary judgment finding his sale on Ebay of Big Bad Record Company's promotional cd's permissible under the first-sale doctrine. Lawfully acquiring title of a copyrighted work gives one the permission to transfer, sell, or dispose of that work without permission from the copyright owner. That's the first sale doctrine (which says the second sale is not a copyright violation).
The Supreme Court created the first sale doctrine, which is very simple. Once you buy a car, you can resell it at any price. Why should copyright differ? In Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus, 210 U.S. 339 (1908), the Supreme Court said it should not. Describing its own case, the Supreme Court explained: "In that case, the publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, had inserted a notice in its books that any retail sale at a price under $1.00 would constitute an infringement of its copyright. The defendants, who owned Macy’s department store, disregarded the notice and sold the books at a lower price without Bobbs-Merrill’s consent. We held that the exclusive statutory right to vend applied only to the first sale of the copyrighted work..."
The Big Bad Record Company said its distribution of promotional CDs constituted a license and not a “sale,” pointing to its promotional statements on the CDs. But, the first-sale doctrine applies not only to a sale, but also to any transfer after the copyrighted work being placed in the stream of commerce. And, as any contract law 101 would teach, the free, unsolicited distribution did not create a license. And the commentators had explained that "first sale" really means "first transfer:" Although this statutory limitation is commonly referred to as the first sale doctrine, its protection does not require a "sale." The doctrine applies after the "first authorized disposition by which title passes." 2 Nimmer § 8.12[B][a]. This passing of title may occur through a transfer by gift. See 4 William F. Patry, Patry on Copyright § 13:15 ("Since the principle [of the first sale doctrine] applies when copies are given away or are otherwise permanently transferred without the accoutrements of a sale, 'exhaustion' is the better description."); 2 Paul Goldstein, Goldstein on Copyright § 7.6.1 n.4 (3d ed.) ("[A] gift of copies or phonorecords will qualify as a 'first sale' to the same extent as an actual sale for consideration.").
Best of all, there is a Unordered Merchandise Statute. Because the discs were unordered merchandise, the recipients were free to “retain, use, discard, or dispose” of them as they saw fit under the Unordered Merchandise Statute." That statute does, indeed, make unordered merchandise a gift. Kudos to the defense lawyers for this research.
The 9th Circuit dismissed the infringement claim. I am safe for receiving Iggy Pop. And future lawyers will try to understand what was a cd . . .