The First Sale Doctrine in the Era of Digital Networks

77 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2003

See all articles by R. Anthony Reese

R. Anthony Reese

University of California, Irvine School of Law


Copyright law's first-sale doctrine allows the owner of any particular lawful copy of a copyrighted work to resell, rent, lend, or give away that copy without the copyright owner's permission. The article first considers the effects the first-sale doctrine has had as part of a copyright system in which many types of works are disseminated by the distribution to the public of tangible copies that can be retransferred by the copy owner to others who can just as easily use the copy to access the work. These effects have largely been to increase the affordability of copies of works (primarily by providing secondary sale, rental, and lending markets that can offer access at a lower price than that charged by the copyright owner for the purchase of a new copy) and the availability of works (by making it possible to obtain access to a work when it goes out of print or when a copyright owner withdraws or suppresses it and by increasing the likelihood that a copy or copies of the work will be preserved over time). Next, the article considers how a shift to digital dissemination - both via transmissions over digital networks and in the form of technologically protected digital copies - may well result in the existence of fewer freely transferable copies of copyrighted works that can be distributed without the copyright owner's consent under the first-sale doctrine. The article then considers how this shift might affect the affordability and availability of copyrighted works. As to affordability, the article concludes that the shift's effect may be positive in some respects but may pose particular problems for library lending, perhaps the most affordable form of access. As to availability, the article concludes that the shift to digital dissemination may give copyright owners more complete control over access to copyrighted works and in particular may eliminate the preservation benefits of widespread distribution of copies that are legally and practically transferable under the first-sale doctrine. The article ends by suggesting some steps that might be taken, particularly with respect to fostering availability of copyrighted works, should the predicted effects of a shift to digital dissemination begin to materialize.

Keywords: copyright, first sale, digital networks, preservation, libraries, encryption, technological protection measures

Suggested Citation

Reese, R. Anthony, The First Sale Doctrine in the Era of Digital Networks. U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 57; and U of Texas Law, Law and Econ Research Paper No. 004, Available at SSRN: or

R. Anthony Reese (Contact Author)

University of California, Irvine School of Law ( email )

401 East Peltason Drive, Suite 1000
Irvine, CA 92697-1000
United States


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