The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this week
In a case regarding Supap Kirtsaeng, who came to the United States from Thailand in the late 90s to study. To earn money, he began selling foreign editions of textbooks that he had friends and family back home ship to him. Textbooks in other countries in the Asian market can be purchased at much lower costs than here in the United States. Kirtsaeng then resold them online for a profit. He was sued for copyright infringement and initially lost the case. That decision was appealed, and that’s where the case stands now.
The issue here is whether copyrighted works made and purchased abroad can then be bought and sold in the United States without the copyright owner’s permission.
Specifically, the textbooks at issue are textbooks printed in Asia by a subsidiary of John Wiley & Sons Publishers. John Wiley & Sons claims that it publishes books in that market and sells them at lower prices because the users there cannot afford the prices that the European and American markets can.
The foreign editions typically have a disclaimer that the books are authorized for sale in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East only and may not be exported. Thus, the issue the Supreme Court must determine is the “first sale doctrine” and how it relates to foreign distribution rights.
The first sale doctrine gives copyright holders the ability to profit only from the original sale. This means that once a consumer lawfully buys a copyrighted product, that person can then resell it to another consumer for whatever price he or she wants, and the copyright owner is not going to receive any kind of compensation. But does the first sale doctrine apply to material manufactured for the foreign market and first purchased outside the United States? The argument Mr. Kirtsaeng will make is that the copyright owner has already been paid via the first sale, and subsequent purchases and sales of the copyrighted material is authorized and allowed.
The case is entitled Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and a ruling is expected in the coming months. We will keep you updated.