In the case of Supap Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether it is legal to buy copyrighted works overseas and resell them at a cheaper price in the United States. The outcome of the case could have major implications in the market for copyrighted works.
The plaintiff of the case, Supap Kirtsaeng, is a Thai national who was studying for an undergraduate degree at Cornell University. His family sent him copies of Wiley textbooks, which were printed and purchased abroad, and he sold those copies on eBay. These actions prompted Wiley to sue Mr. Kirtsaeng on the basis of copyright infringement; however he invoked the first-sale doctrine in his defense.
In August 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower court’s ruling that the first-sale principle applied only to works made within the United States. In addition, according to the evidence presented in the federal appeals court, Mr. Kirtsaeng profited $900,000 to $1.2 million from the textbook sales, indicating that he was running a business and not simply reselling his used textbooks.
The case has the potential to radically affect the markets for used textbooks, movies, toys, cars, videogames and any other goods that contain copyrighted works. Librarians are especially concerned because it could undermine the first-sale doctrine, which allows the buyer of a copyrighted work to lend or sell it without permission from the rights holder. If the Supreme Court changes the rules of the first-sale doctrine, then libraries would no longer be able to loan imported books from their collections.
Both sides of the case will present their arguments to the Supreme Court this fall, with a ruling expected by June 2013.
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