Yesterday, the US Copyright Office published updated rules governing what consumers can do with some of the stuff they “own”. (The Electronic Freedom Foundation has more details.) You might be surprised what’s illegal.
Want to rip your DVD to put on your iPad to watch during a flight? Illegal, even if you own the DVD and no one else watches it.
Want to modify your Kindle Fire to run non-Amazon applications? Illegal, even if it’s just to change the background image.
The good news is that now it’s officially okay to extract video snippets from a DVD for fair use in creating noncommercial works. And it’s still okay to jailbreak smartphones, just not tablets.
The bad news, albeit not strictly related, is that the US Supreme Court will soon decide whether it’s still legal for you to sell your stuff on eBay. You see, there’s a old, common-sense principle called the “First Sale Doctrine”. When you buy something new, you have to pay (through the supply chain) royalties to the folks who created it. But after that first sale, you own that physical thing, whether it’s a book, a dress, or a DVD. You can use it as often as you want, give it to a friend, or sell it on eBay without anyone’s permission.
For what’s going on, let’s turn to Marvin Ammori’s article in The Atlantic. “John Wiley & Sons, a textbook publisher, sells expensive versions of the textbooks here and less expensive versions abroad. Supap Kirtsaeng, a foreign graduate student at University of Southern California, decided to help pay for his schooling by having relatives buy him copies of the foreign versions abroad, send them to him, whereupon he’d sell those books on eBay to willing students. He’d make money, the students would save money, but Wiley might have fewer sales of its pricey American versions.”
The problem is that some lower courts have held that such foreign-created works are not bound by the first-sale doctrine. And there are a whole lot of things for sale in the US that were made elsewhere – those iPads, for instance. If it meant keeping control of secondary sales, companies might manufacture even more of their stuff overseas.
Some folks hate the idea of seeing their work freely resold. Almost 20 years ago, Garth Brooks withheld his new CDs from any store that sold used copies for that very reason. The big copyright holders would love to get another excuse to squeeze more cash from consumers.
In this ever-shrinking world, the notion of artificially raising prices in one region while selling for less elsewhere just seems silly. I don’t know if it’ll do any good, but the populist group Demand Progress is planning a day of action for Monday, October 28. You can find out more information at YouveBeenOwned.org. Maybe if enough citizens let their government know what’s right, they’ll do the right thing. Maybe.