The importation of copyrighted goods made abroad has been an increasingly contentious issue in recent years. Easy access to Internet resale markets like eBay and Amazon have made it possible for a new breed of entrepreneurs to buy low and sell high in a wide array of areas. The Supreme Court handed these resellers a major victory today, issuing a decision [PDF] that makes it clear that the “first sale” doctrine protects resellers, even when they move goods across national boundaries.
Those upstarts have peeved a lot of corporations, and some of them used copyright law to fight back. Textbook maker John Wiley & Sons sued a Thai student-entrepreneur named Supap Kirtsaeng, who had been buying cheaper (but non-pirated) versions of various textbooks in his home country, bringing them to the US, and selling them to his fellow students stateside on eBay. The price differentials were so big that there was quite a bit of money to be made; at trial, the publishing company’s lawyers hammered home the fact that they had counted up $1.2 million in receipts over the life of Kirtsaeng’s business.
Wiley argued those profits should be barred by copyright law. Their right to control prices abroad was actually part of their copyright grant, they argued. The textbook company won a jury verdict against Kirtsaeng, which was upheld by the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, and Kirtsaeng appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that his business was protected by the “first sale” doctrine.
Today’s decision vindicates the “first sale” doctrine, which allows the owner of a particular copy of a work to do whatever she wants with it after purchasing it. It overrides first sale losses in both the 9th and 2nd Circuits and makes it clear that digital commerce can flourish in the Internet era, even when it crosses borders.
This is good news. Once you purchase something you own it, and that ownership should include resale rights.
The world is increasingly becoming a global market. The days of different prices for different countries is crumbling under the Internet.