Netflix reported a second-quarter profit last week as customer demand continues to drive a transition in the company’s primary delivery model from DVD-by-mail to Internet streaming. According to The New York Times, “[t]he company’s net losses among DVD-by-mail subscriptions outpaced its gains in net streaming subscriptions in the United States, reflecting the continued challenge of converting from a physical disc business to one predominately online.” The company, of which I am a longtime subscriber and fan, has famously struggled with the business implications of this transition since it began offering streaming service in 2007. (Remember the Qwickster debacle?) Those business implications derive in some interesting ways from copyright law.
The DVD-by-mail model, on which Netflix built its success, was enabled by the first sale doctrine, which cuts off a copyright owner’s distribution right with respect to a particular copy of a copyrighted work when that copy is first sold. Because of the first sale doctrine, Netflix was not required to get permission from movie studios to set up its business. In the early days, Netflix simply bought DVDs—lots of them—from whatever retailers were selling them and then rented those DVDs to its customers. If the movie studios didn’t like that, well, too bad.