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Reselling Books Online? Read Kirtsaeng First

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on March 22, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Reselling books online just got a lot easier for those with connections overseas, where some titles are much cheaper to purchase.

In a case called Kirtsaeng v. Wiley & Sons, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it's perfectly OK to buy books that are legally produced abroad and resell them at a profit in the United States. (You can read the ruling in its entirety at FindLaw's Courtside blog.)

If you're not familiar with how to sell books online, let's break it down a bit. There are quite a few places where you can do it, with eBay and Amazon among the more popular sites. And in general, a legal principle called the "first sale" doctrine allows it to happen.

'First Sale Doctrine'

The "first sale" docrtine allows the lawful purchaser of a copyrighted book to resell it, lend it to someone else, or give it away. It's that simple.

Or is it?

It actually wasn't for Supap Kirtsaeng, a student in California who had some sweet connections in Thailand. Through those connections, Kirtsaeng legally purchased textbooks in Thailand for a fraction of their U.S. retail price.

Kirtsaeng then resold these books online in the United States, and made more than $30,000.

The Kirtsaeng Case

That is, until John Wiley & Sons came after him. The textbook publisher wasn't too thrilled about the prospect of losing out on sales. They brought suit under the "first sale" doctrine, arguing that it only applied to copyrighted works produced within the United States.

In other words, John Wiley asserted that the doctrine did not apply to products produced abroad, even if they were produced with the copyright holder's permission.

Though lower federal courts agreed with that interpretation, the U.S. Supreme Court read it differently. In a 6-3 decision, justices held the "first sale" doctrine applies to any product that's lawfully produced pursuant to U.S. law, regardless of where it's made.

As a result, the court tossed out Wiley's $600,000 damage award.

As part of its opinion, the Court explained how its interpretation of the "first sale" doctrine makes sense in the age of globalization, a Forbes contirbutor noted. Reading between the lines, the Kirtsaeng case can be seen as a huge victory for online entrepreneurs.

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