Second Hand Media

Back in the pre-digital age, if I bought a record, video tape, or book, it came with the legal right to sell or give it to someone if I chose to.

This is known as the “first-sale” doctrine and was first recognized by the US Supreme Court one hundred years ago. In 1976 the concept was written into copyright law.

Fast forward to 2009 and consider the same situation with digital media.

Do you have the same “first-sale” rights for a music download, video file, or audio book? What about software, a medium which certainly had no equivalent to the formats considered by the Court or Congress?

The ease with which digital copies can be produced adds many new layers to the concept of media “ownership”. Do you still own that music download or are you only leasing it?

DRM, the effort by producers to lock the files, and the DMCA, which makes it illegal to break those locks, only makes things more complicated.

Ars Technica has a good overview of the issues involved in bringing copyright into the digital age but don’t read the article looking for answers to the many questions.

That’s going to require some major revisions to copyright law and the concept of “first-sale” in the very near future.