25 October, 2016

Used Treasures - CJEU Sets Limits on the Resale of Copyright Works

Resale of goods, particularly those protected by copyright, has been a question that the courts have been tackling for a long time. This is further exasperated by the online environment, where the sale and use of sold products or software is ever-more elusive, with the actual exhaustion of any rights (particularly in the sale of the protected goods) is unclear. For rightsholders, exhaustion of rights can often seem like having your cake and eating it, while those seeking to benefit from it perceive it as more of a possibility to create a second-hand market in the online environment. Not often discussed, cases dealing directly with exhaustion seem to be far and few between; however, the Court of Justice of the EU recently took on a case dealing with a question that is important in the context of software exhaustion.

The case of Aleksandrs Ranks and Jurijs Vasiļevičs v Finanšu un ekonomisko noziegumu izmeklēšanas prokoratūra and Microsoft Corp deals with two Latvian individuals who sold Microsoft software products online during 2001 to 2004. The Court estimated that over 3,000 copies had been sold, with the pair making revenues nearing $300,000 during that time. Mr Ranks and Vasiļevičs were subsequently charged with a number of infringement claims, and having gone through the courts in Latvia, the matter ultimately ended up in the CJEU, particularly dealing with questions surrounding the exhaustion of rights in the aforementioned software products.

The Court, dealing with the two referred question together, summarized the matter as asking "…the interpretation of Article 4(2) of Directive 2009/24 [Software Directive], establishing the rule of exhaustion of the copyright holder’s distribution right, and of Article 5(1) and (2) of [the Directive], laying down exceptions to that rightholder’s exclusive right of reproduction, must be interpreted as referring to the equivalent provisions of Directive 91/250 [Computer Programs Directive], namely Article 4(c) thereof, on the one hand, and Article 4(a) and Article 5(1) and (2) thereof, on the other". Effectively the questions seek to establish whether the exhaustion of rights after their first sale under the Software Directive is interpreted as meaning the same equivalent provision as set out in the Computer Programs Directive.

Having discussed the admissibility of the claim overall, allowing for them to be referred to the CJEU, the Court first looked at the actual concept of exhaustion.

For exhaustion to apply to the right to distribute computer programs in the EU it is is subject to two conditions: "...(i) the copy must have been placed on the market and, more specifically, sold by the rightholder or with his consent, and (ii) it must have been placed on the market in the European Union". Sale in itself means the sale of a program for an unlimited period in return for a fee to remunerate the rightsholder for the distribution of that particular program. While the Court has clearly established that, at least in most cases, the sale applies to physical copies of the programs only; the case at hand discussed the resale of electronic copies, and thus would be outside of the prima facie remit of the provisions.

Even Santa has to resell some things
The Court followed this with observations that, although the provisions above discuss 'a copy' of the program, no particular medium is specified, and, following the decision in UsedSoft, the law "...makes no distinction according to the tangible or intangible form of the copy in question". The sale then clearly applies irrespective of the medium of the program, as long as it has been initially sold in the EU lawfully. The reseller can, therefore, resell a copy of a program provided that "…[the] sale does not adversely affect the rightholder’s exclusive reproduction right".

Mr Ranks and Vasiļevičs also argued that the rule would allow for the resale of computer programs stored on a non-original medium (i.e. electronically rather than on a CD or DVD, for example) if the original medium has been damaged. While Article 5 of the Computer Program Directive allows for the making of back-up copies, the exception is limited to instances where "… That copy… (i) [is] made by a person having a right to use that program and (ii) [is] necessary for that use". Clearly, the resale of 'back-up' copies would not fall under Article 5, even if the original copy has been damaged. The CJEU followed this rationale, establishing that a copy cannot be resold even if the original medium has been damaged, and can only be used to meet the sole needs of the person who made that back-up copy.

Although UsedSoft established that the purchaser of a legal electronic copy of a computer program does have the right to resell their copy (and the rights were exhausted as a result of that initial sale), this can be distinguished from the resale of a back-up copy, since the back-up would not have been the item that was originally sold (which was the tangible copy) and exhaustion would not, arguably, apply. Has the individuals purchased the copies from Microsoft legally from their website, they potentially could have had the right to resell the copies.

In the end the CJEU summarized their decision as "… that Article 4(a) and (c) and Article 5(1) and (2) of Directive 91/250 must be interpreted as meaning that, although the initial acquirer of a copy of a computer program accompanied by an unlimited user licence is entitled to resell that copy and his licence to a new acquirer, he may not, however, in the case where the original material medium of the copy that was initially delivered to him has been damaged, destroyed or lost, provide his back-up copy of that program to that new acquirer without the authorisation of the rightholder".

The resale of computer programs is a very thorny topic, as one can see, and the resolution the CJEU came up with seems to make the most sense. This allows for the resale of genuine copies of programs, yet reserves the rights to only those with a bona fide interest in doing so, rather than a mere opportunistic view for quick monetary gains. The limitation of the resale of back-up copies also makes sense, since, as the original program was bought in a tangible medium, the original seller's view couldn't have been one that allows for the resale of any back-up copies (especially since back-ups, by nature, are for the user and no one else as a means to access their programs in the event of damage or loss to the CD/DVD). It will be interesting to see whether this case spawns more litigation; however, this writer seems to be quite skeptical of this, due to the complexity and lack of benefit to those who'd pursue this avenue more vigorously.

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