The United States Supreme Court recently ruled for an individual who was sued by a book publisher for selling foreign-made textbooks.
In the case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., the Court ruled 6-3 that copyrighted works made and purchased abroad may be resold within the United States without the copyright owner’s permission. While some may believe that the ruling is a victory for anyone who buys and sells intellectual property, such as books, movies, music, and artwork, it has very limited application.
Supap Kirtsaeng, a citizen of Thailand who attended college in New York and California, bought textbooks abroad—where the prices are lower—and resold them in the United States. The book publisher sued on copyright grounds. The publisher argued that it sells its products overseas at a cheaper price because overseas buyers may have less income than buyers in the United States or Europe. When retail and resale firms exploit differences in worldwide prices, manufacturers lose tens of billions of dollars a year, according to some business-generated estimates.
The lawsuit forced the Court to examine the limits of two key interpretations of copyright law—the “first sale doctrine” and its relationship to foreign distribution rights. The first sale doctrine generally gives copyright holders the ability to profit only once from the sale of items; once a person lawfully purchases a copyrighted item, the person can sell the copyrighted item without punishment and without having to compensate the original copyright holder. The buyer then has the power to resell, destroy, or donate the item. This case concerned whether the first sale doctrine applies to material both manufactured and first purchased outside the United States. The Court ruled that it did. Important to the appellee, but apparently not to the Court’s decision was the fact that the book publisher, John Wiley and Sons, attempted to impose restricted licenses on overseas sellers.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, and Antonin Scalia dissented from the Court’s decision.
Do you have questions about copyright or related issues? Call Dallas intellectual property lawyer Mazin A. Sbaiti at 214-432-2899.