Bobbs-Merrill Company v. Straus
210 U.S. 339 (1908)

  • Bobbs-Merrill was a book publisher that owned the rights to a book called The Castaway. Inside the book cover, they wrote a notice saying that the minimum retail sale price of the book was $1, and if a retailer sells it for less than that they are infringing the copyright.
  • Straus was a retailer who bought copies of the book from a wholesaler and started selling them for 89. Bobbs-Merrill sued for copyright infringement.
    • Bobbs-Merrill argued their ownership of the copyright gave them the exclusive right to distribute, and that meant that they could revoke Straus' right to sell the books at any time.
    • Straus argued that they didn't buy the book from Bobbs-Merrill, they bought it from a wholesaler. Whatever deal Bobbs-Merrill might have made with the wholesaler didn't affect them because they were not in privity with any contract between Bobbs-Merrill and the wholesaler.
  • The US Supreme Court found for Straus.
    • The US Supreme Court basically found that copyright law gave the copyright owner the right to restrict others from making their own copies of a work. However, it did not give them any rights to control what happened to books after they sold them.
  • This case described what is now knows as the first sale doctrine, and is codified in 17 U.S.C. 109(a). The first sale doctrine basically says that once someone buys a legitimate copy of a work, they can do whatever they want with it, including sell it to others, or lend it out, or whatever. They just can't make extra copies of it.
    • The first sale doctrine is what prevents used bookstores and libraries from being copyright infringers.
    • The first sale doctrine is sometimes known as the doctrine of exhaustion.