Peter Brantley, blogging for Publishers Weekly, has written a nice post about the troubles that libraries are having holding onto their ownership rights in electronic books. According to Brantley, librarians are increasingly being asked to trade ownership rights they currently enjoy in paperbound books for licensing terms that restrict a library's ability to share or lend electronic books.
The heart of the matter is the copyright law's first sale doctrine, an exception to the copyright owner's distribution right. Under the first sale doctrine, the "first sale" of a copyrighted work exhausts the copyright owner's distribution right in that copy of the work, thus depriving the copyright owner of the right to control downstream uses of the work. The new owner of the copy may lawfully re-sell, or lend, or even destroy the work. It's an understatement to say that digital publishing and digital distribution technologies have placed considerable stress on the first sale doctrine. In the commercial publishing industry, nearly all electronic material is licensed not sold.
The Brantley post hits all the recent flash points in the debate: next week's Supreme Court oral arguments in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons Inc., the European Court of Justice's recent ruling on distributions of "used software," and a pair of grassroots initiatives to preserve first sale doctrine rights in ebooks -- Readers First and the Owners' Rights Initiative.
Well worth a read.
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