Another Court Ruling Against Autodesk in Software Dispute

UPDATE: On October 3, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined a request to grant certiorari in the Vernor case, allowing to stand the Ninth Circuit’s reversal of the trial court’s decision. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case means that, at least in the Ninth Circuit, software publishers like Autodesk may continue to seek injunctions and other remedies against those who attempt to distribute copies of a copyrighted software product without a license.

Many businesses that use software published by Autodesk are familiar with the company’s vigorous copyright enforcement program. Autodesk is one of the most active software publishers when it comes to threatening litigation over allegedly unlicensed use of its well-known computer-aided design products, such as AutoCAD, and it regularly targets businesses of all sizes demanding costly and distracting audits and settlements, often based solely on the word of unidentified informants.

In addition to such matters targeted at its past and potential customers, however, Autodesk’s enforcement program also includes efforts to eradicate what it believes to be unauthorized sale of its software. The Washington state federal lawsuit of Vernor v. Autodesk Inc. falls into this category. Here, the plaintiff, Timothy Vernor, had for some time attempted to sell used AutoCAD packages on eBay. However, when he did so, Autodesk sent notices to eBay pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that such activity violated Autodesk’s copyrights, and in order to avoid contributory copyright liability, eBay removed the listings. After several such exchanges, eBay eventually terminated Vernor’s account. In response, Vernor filed suit against Autodesk, seeking a declaratory judgment that his sale of used software did not constitute copyright infringement.

In its first substantive opinion in the matter, the Federal Court for the Western District of Washington denied a motion to dismiss in which Autodesk had argued that the software Vernor attempted to sell on eBay had been licensed exclusively to a Seattle architecture firm, that the firm had no authority to transfer the software to any other party, and that Vernor’s activity therefore constituted a violation of its copyrights in the software. The court disagreed, holding that the first sale doctrine under U.S. copyright law protected Vernor from liability. Despite Autodesk’s characterization of the earlier transaction as the transfer of a license, the court ruled that the architectural firm merely had purchased a copy of the product, and first sale doctrine allows the lawful owner of a copy of a work to sell or give it away.

On September 30, 2009, the court essentially repeated this holding in ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by each of the parties. Again relying primarily on the 9th Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Wise (1977), the court characterized the earlier sale to the architectural firm as just a sale with a restriction as to use. After Wise, the 9th Circuit held in other cases involving software disputes that software licensees did not “own” their copies. However, the Vernor trial court nevertheless looked to Wise as the controlling precedent, because it was the earliest case to consider the issue and because the 9th Circuit did not expressly address it in the cases that followed.

A decision by Autodesk not to appeal these rulings by the Vernor court would be surprising, considering what is at stake. The implications of the court’s holding, if allowed to stand, would cast a shadow across the license-enforcement initiatives of not only Autodesk, but also other software publishers and their trade groups, such as the Business Software Alliance and the Software & Information Industry Association. It will be very interesting to see what happens next in this matter.