Supreme Court Rules for Student Buying Textbooks Abroad, Reselling on Ebay
In what has been called one of the most important copyright cases of the century, the Supreme Court of the United States has issued a verdict in the case of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, in favor of a California graduate student who bought textbooks for cheap while outside of the U.S. and later resold them for sub-market value on Ebay in order to undercut the steep prices of American college textbooks.
The student, Supap Kirtsaeng, had been sued by the global textbook publisher Jown Wiley & Sons, for allegedly violating their “exclusive rights” to distribute copyrighted material. Kirtsaeng had rebutted that he was protected on the “first-sale” doctrine, which contends that copyright holders cannot ban resale of their products after the initial sale has been completed.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote the majority opinion for the proceedings and found that no geographic boundaries could be implemented in the federal regulation, and that the overturning the doctrine would have lasting ramifications for the publishing world.
“Reliance upon the ‘first sale’ doctrine is deeply embedded in the practices of those, such as booksellers, libraries, museums, and retailers, who have long relied upon its protection,” Breyer wrote.
John Wiley & Sons’ argument, whose attempt to block the University of Southern California student’s sale of products via a $600,000 lower court judgment initially began the long legal battle, stated that any deleterious effects on the economy from limiting or revoking the “first-sale” doctrine were largely theoretical.
“We are less sanguine,” Breyer wrote.
“The fact that harm has proved limited so far may simply reflect the reluctance of copyright holders so far to assert geographically based resale rights,” Breyer said. “They may decide differently if the law is clarified in their favor. Regardless, a copyright law that can work in practice only if unenforced is not a sound copyright law. It is a law that would create uncertainty, would bring about selective enforcement, and, if widely unenforced, would breed disrespect for copyright law itself.”
Breyer was joined in the 6-3 decision by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.
In the dissenting opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, stated that the decision went against Congress’s efforts to support copyright holders. “The court’s parade of horribles,” she wrote, “is largely imaginary.”