There is a battle brewing in courts that everyone in the photo industry should pay very close attention to. A company called ReDigi ( is in the business of allowing anyone to resale “used” digital files. In other words, allowing anyone to sell, for example, an MP3 file they legally purchased. They claim rightful business practice under the first sale doctrine, the same rule that allows you to resale your used books.

The first sale doctrine has been in place and used by everyone for a long time. From vinyls to CD’s, video tapes to DVD’s, books, everyone has, in their lifetime , sold copyrighted material they were done consuming. Wikipedia states “ The first-sale doctrine plays an important role in copyright and trademark law by limiting certain rights of a copyright or trademark owner. The doctrine enables the distribution chain of copyrighted products, library lending, gifting, video rentals and secondary markets for copyrighted works (for example, enabling individuals to sell their legally purchased books or CDs to others). In trademark law, this same doctrine enables reselling of trademarked products after the trademark holder put the products on the market.”

Up to now it has always been in a physical format. ReDigi claims that there should be no difference for digital files of the same content.

US District Court Justice judge Richard J. Sullivan has recently ruled that Redigi was a “direct, contributory, vicarious infringement”. However, he added “ The Court cannot of its own accord condone the wholesale application of the first sale defense to the digital sphere”.

The difference between the physical and digital transfer is that in the physical world, the owner does not keep a copy of the work once the transaction is completed. In the digital world, obviously, the work is duplicated. However, the European Court of justice recently rules that it is permissible to resell software license and that the first sale doctrine applies when the software was sold to the original customer for an unlimited amount of time.

Without going further into obtuse legalese, it is clear that, once again, what affects musical files and software license will find its way to photography. Under the European ruling, Royalty Free images could become fair game for first sales doctrine, allowing buyers to resale images. In other words, photographs could find their way in huge second hand markets with the photographer, or the agency, never seeing a penny.

Think it’s no big deal ? Amazon was awarded a patent for a digital file second hand marketplace and Apple is also in the process of seeking one for a similar usage. Both are getting ready to open the floodgate should the first sale doctrine become applicable to digital files. Will your images be part of it ?

Great deep dive article by the NYT here

Author: pmelcher


  1. Here is my thinking: In order to qualify as being available for sale, the “object” must be unique, not a copy of the original. A book, photographic print or painting is a unique object and therefore can be bought and sold. You may not make a copy of the object and sell that copy. Digital files are, by their nature, infinitely copiable. The digital file is not the original, but a duplicate of the original. Without authorization from the copyright holder it make not be duplicated and sold.

    1. Author

      You are absolutely correct in your assumption. That has been the requirement, up to now. The cracks that we are seing in the software legislation ( especially in Europe, where it is legal to resale software that has been downloaded) are opening a brand new issue for photographs. The fact that both Apple and Amazon are already working on platform enabling the resale of digital files presupposed that they are convinced that the legislation will change soon ( probably with their help). The point of this entry is not to state something current but that might happen sooner than we think.

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