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
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
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.