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What are Resell Rights?

By M. Lupica
Updated May 17, 2024
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Resell rights are rights that belong to any lawful purchaser of a copyrighted item, such as a book, a movie, or music. These resell rights are granted under a legal theory called the first sale doctrine, which provides that once the copyright holder of a creative work sells or gives away a copy of that work, he or she has no more rights in that particular copy. This legal concept is what allows people to make private sales of copyrighted items they legally purchase without violating the copyright holder’s exclusive right of distribution. While resell rights formerly allowed lawful purchasers of copyrighted works to rent such works for profit without permission of the copyright owner, most jurisdictions have enacted laws disallowing this practice.

Normally, a copyright holder has an exclusive right to distribute copies of the creative work in which he or she holds copyright. However, the first sale doctrine severs all of his or her rights in a particular copy of creative work after selling or giving away that copy to another person. This means that any lawful purchaser of the copy may sell or give away the particular copy he or she acquired through legal means without seeking permission to distribute the work from the copyright holder. Conversely, if he or she acquires the copy through illegal means, he or she has no resell rights in that particular copy and any transfer violates the copyright holder’s exclusive right of distribution.

The proliferation of digital copies of music and movies has somewhat changed these resell rights. By their very nature, it is easy to create identical copies of music or movies in their digital form without any special equipment. Therefore, resell rights generally do not apply to duplicates of lawfully acquired digital copies of music or movies unless the reseller deletes the digital copy he or she initially purchased.

Previously, resell rights encompassed the right to rent lawfully purchased creative works for profit as well. However, in the early 1980s, there was an increase in such businesses and copyright holders felt that the rental businesses were a threat to sales. As a result, most jurisdictions enacted legislation that exempted renting such creative works for profit from resell rights. Therefore, anyone who rents a lawfully purchased copy of a creative work to a third party must first seek permission of the copyright holder or the rental is a violation of the holder’s exclusive right to distribution.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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