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In some comments to Is it illegal to cut out a face from the newspaper? it came up whether you could legally buy an oil painting, add some stuff to it, and then sell it. I found that a provocative question, since it seems like the first sale doctrine allows it, but also you'd be unable to protect your own creative work in the action.

I then had a thought. This could be a workaround for derivative works. Keeping in print media, suppose I purchased many copies of prints and cut and modified them. Could I distribute the resultant works, since each came from legally obtained copies? Moving into the digital sphere, does this have the same effect? If I modify a film and have a legally obtained copy of the original for every copy I distribute, is there actually a copyright violation? The first sale doctrine seems to apply only to the actual physical media that your copy came on, thus the necessary copying nature of digital media means this won't work. Is that right?

A following comment in that question argued that the whole concept falls apart because copyright includes the rights to derivative works, which seems a pretty tight retort. I'm mostly interested in US law, but international differences are welcome.

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  • The Internet Archive "Lending Library" seems to be able to get away with digital reproduction and distribution by having a physical copy for every digital copy currently "in use". Seems very related.
    – 608
    Nov 10 at 21:55
  • to be fair, if you're buying every piece of work that you modify, the person who owns the copyright is getting their fair compensation for their intellectual property. You are only getting compensated for your additions to their work.
    – Esther
    Nov 11 at 4:30
  • Some jurisdictions have rules about "moral rights" which may give the artist some say over what is done to their works, particularly modifying in a derogatory way; although these may be waived for newspapers or other hired work (although this also varies).
    – Stuart F
    Nov 11 at 14:32
  • Many used books I've bought have handwritten notes in them in various places, and many of those notes are certainly above the "modicum of creativity" requirement. I.e. those notes are technically copyrighted, too. Presumably though, the author of those notes at one point sold her edition of the book, with the intention to allow it to be futher sold. I've never seen someone write a handwritten license for her handwritten notes.
    – Brandin
    Nov 21 at 8:53

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