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Vernor v. Autodesk, Inc.

Timothy Vernor purchased several used copies of Autodesk, Inc.’s AutoCAD Release 14 software (“Release 14”) from one of Autodesk’s direct customers, and he resold the Release 14 copies on eBay. Vernor brought this declaratory judgment action against Autodesk to establish that these resales did not infringe Autodesk’s copyright. The district court issued the requested declaratory judgment, holding that Vernor’s sales were lawful because of two of the Copyright Act’s affirmative defenses that apply to owners of copies of copyrighted works, the first sale doctrine and the essential step defense.

Autodesk distributes Release 14 pursuant to a limited license agreement in which it reserves title to the software copies and imposes significant use and transfer restrictions on its customers. We determine that Autodesk’s direct customers are licensees of their copies of the software rather than owners, which has two ramifications. Because Vernor did not purchase the Release 14 copies from an owner, he may not invoke the first sale doctrine, and he also may not assert an essential step defense on behalf of his customers. For these reasons, we vacate the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Vernor and remand for further proceedings.

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