Post-Sale Restraints and Competitive Harm: The First Sale Doctrine in Perspective

58 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2010 Last revised: 20 Dec 2013

See all articles by Herbert Hovenkamp

Herbert Hovenkamp

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School; University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School

Date Written: February 15, 2011


A post-sale restraint is a condition or contract provision that operates after a good has been sold. In antitrust law these restraints are roughly divided into two classes, “intrabrand” and “interbrand.” An intrabrand restraint limits the way a firm can distribute the restricted property. For example, resale price maintenance controls the price at which goods can be resold. Intrabrand nonprice restraints place other types of limits, such as the places from which goods can be sold, the uses for which they can be sold, and the identity of buyers. By contrast, an interbrand restraint limits a purchaser’s right to deal in the goods of rivals. “Exclusive dealing” involves a buyer’s promise not to purchase competing goods from anyone else, and “tying” refers to a buyer’s promise to take a second product from this seller as well.

Intellectual property policy also has a set of rules that limit post-sale restraints. Many of these are addressed under the rubric of intellectual property “misuse,” whose rules are similar but not identical to antitrust rules. A third rule, the IP “exhaustion” or “first sale” requirement, applies to these same restraints as well. Unlike both antitrust doctrine and misuse doctrine, the first sale rule refuses to enforce post-sale restraints without querying into anticompetitive effects, economic benefits or impact on innovation. Whatever policy justifications the judge made first sale rule may have, they were not made apparent in the Supreme Court’s 2008 Quanta decision. At this writing the Supreme Court has granted certiorari in another post-sale restraint decision, this one involving copyright law and resale price maintenance.

Quanta ended a trend in both the Supreme Court and Federal Circuit of using the law of post-sale restraints to prohibit unreasonable limitations on competition or innovation, while permitting the market to govern their use otherwise. Instead the Court reverted to a per se rule that refuses to enforce post-sale restraints without regard to economic consequences. While rationales exist for the first sale doctrine, these pertain to whether breach of contract suits or infringement actions are better devices for downstream enforcement of IP restraints and the extent of notice communicated to downstream infringers. But these considerations were also irrelevant to the per se rule that the Supreme Court adopted.

This paper critiques this approach to first sale doctrine, concluding that it lacks a coherent policy justification and that it undermines a decades long trend toward increasing sophistication in the analysis of vertical restraints involving intellectual property rights.

Keywords: Patents, Copyright, Antitrust, Misuse, First Sale, Exhaustion, Intellectual Property, Resale Price Maintenance, Quanta

JEL Classification: B21, D02, D21, D40, K11, K20, K21, L11, L23, O34

Suggested Citation

Hovenkamp, Herbert, Post-Sale Restraints and Competitive Harm: The First Sale Doctrine in Perspective (February 15, 2011). NYU Annual Survey of American Law, 2011, U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-08, Available at SSRN:

Herbert Hovenkamp (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
319-512-9579 (Phone)

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School ( email )

3641 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States

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