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First Sale Doctrine Applies to Books 'Lawfully Made Abroad'

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Get ready to resell your books, ladies and gentlemen. The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the first sale doctrine does apply to works made overseas, Publishers Weekly reports.

The first sale doctrine in copyright law allows the owner of a lawfully-purchased copyrighted work to resell it without limitations imposed by the copyright holder.

The dispute before the Court focused on Supap Kirtsaeng, a student from Thailand who was studying in the U.S. Kirtsaeng asked his friends and family back home to purchase his textbooks at lower foreign prices and ship them to the U.S. Seizing upon the American entrepreneurial spirit, Kirtsaeng began selling the textbooks on eBay. He made $37,000 before John Wiley & Sons, a textbook publisher, sued to stop him.

Wiley argued that the first sale doctrine only applied to copyrighted works produced within the U.S., and that its right to control prices abroad was actually part of its copyright grant, Ars Technica reports. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals later agreed with the publisher, noting that, to conclude otherwise would undercut 17 USC §602(a)(1), which prohibits people from buying copyrighted works abroad and importing them into the U.S. without the copyright owner's permission.

As the case made its way to the Supreme Court, it seems that everyone wanted to join in the fight. The Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America got behind Wiley, "arguing that extending the first-sale doctrine to copies made abroad could impede authors' ability to control entry into poorer nations, limit their flexibility to adapt to market conditions and undermine territorial licensing agreements," The Hollywood Reporter reports.

Library associations, used-book dealers, technology compa­nies, consumer-goods retailers, and museums sided with Kirtsaeng, pointing out "various ways in which a geographical interpretation would fail to further basic constitutional copyright objectives, in particular 'promot[ing] the Progress of Science and useful Arts,'" according to Publishers Weekly.

The 6-3 majority found Kirtsaeng's position more compelling. The Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit, concluding that Kirtsaeng had the right to resell books that were "lawfully made abroad."

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