Copyright and your right to sell

14
Jun

Copyright and your right to sell

I wanted to share an interesting article I ran across in that the implications cross over into many areas, some that have been heralded as the heart of the open source philosophy. Specifically, I'm talking about your right to copy, share, and resell what you own and, in some cases, what you think you own. For the background, start by reading this article over at The Atlantic.

In the world of Free Software, most of us understand that copyright isn't the same thing as ownership. Copyright is, in a sense, the right of the creator to define the terms under which his or her work is reproduced, shared, or sold. If you use software copyrighted and licensed under the GPL, the copyright holders allow you to modify, copy, and redistribute the work as you see fit under a share and share alike sort of agreement. In that way, we all 'own' the product or the software. If you improve the product, you must return those improvements to the community.You can also make copies and charge a reasonable fee to redistribute your copies. There's certainly no issue with you reselling your PC loaded with Fedora or Ubuntu.

Or so you might have thought.

In the case of the above article, your rights to resell even the hardware on which your free software resides are in question. By the simple act of branding, it may become a legal requirement that you obtain permission from every copyright or brand holder before you are allowed to resell your hardware. "Designed in the US by Apple and assembled in China by Quinhai Investments" with parts by another dozen companies might require that you obtain permission from every single one of the companies involved before you sell on Craiglist. In essense, you may not be able to legally resell pretty much anything.

Historically, the copyright holder has the right of controlling only the first sale. Once you bought the copyrighted work, you are free to resell it. You can't make copies and violate copyright in that way, but if you're done with that Stephen King bestseller, you can put it out at your garage sale, or give it away to a friend. They, in turn, can also try to make a few pennies off it at a later time. This rule applies to books, CDs, televisions, cars, planes, trains, you name it. Except that this rule is being challenged with companies arguing that the "made by" imprint or logo allows them to define what happens to that product and whether you, as the purchaser, can legally resell  that product.

The impact on computer recyclers who donate rebuilt and reconditioned PCs to charity could be devastating. The environmental and economic impact could also have reverberations you can monitor on the Richter Scale. If your only choice for an upgrade is to dispose of your earlier product, the landfills will grow at an alarming rate. If people must always spend more, with no hope of recouping any of their investment in a device, they face the choice of going further in debt, or simply choosing not to buy. Either of these last two scenarios carry large economic penalties.

Furthermore, there may also be legal requirements that you can only purchase product sold in approved countries. By purchasing that Samsung tablet from another country while Apple has an injunction in your country, you may be committing a crime. Costco was sued for selling Omega watches it purchased abroad in their North American stores. The reason? The price they were able to charge was too low for what Omega demanded of North American consumers.

And we aren't just talking about electronics here . . . your car or your house are also up for grabs. Is there a Honeywell thermostat on the wall inside? Maybe Honeywell doesn't want you to sell to someone who might replace that thermostat with another brand. Did the builder advertise the inside paint as Benjamin Moore? You may need to contact them before you resell since you may need an assurance from the buyer that they won't tamper with that company's product. That Italian tile in the kitchen may look dated but removing it to sell the house may be out of the question.

The implications of this case, currently before the Supreme Court, are mind-boggling. Free Software may be the only refuge, assuming you can get some Free Hardware to go with it.

Edited: Today, October 29, 2012, the case is expected to be decided. Ars Technica has a story to catch you up on everthing that is happening or has happened.

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