In a decision hailed by digital rights advocates, the Supreme Court made clear today that people have the right to resell merchandise that they purchased abroad.
The court's 6-3 ruling means that people can continue to sell their used books, CDs, DVDs, even cars with copyrighted GPS systems, on Craigslist, eBay and other online marketplaces.
The decision stemmed from a lawsuit by the publisher John Wiley & Sons against grad student Supap Kirtsaeng, who purchased textbooks in Thailand and then resold them in the U.S. for a profit of around $100,000.
Wiley sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement. But Kirtsaeng said that the copyright statute's "first sale" provisions gave him the right to resell material that he had purchased legally.
First-sale principles generally say that anyone who purchases a copyrighted product can resell that product. But questions about the principles are complicated by language in the copyright law stating that the first sale doctrine only applies to material that is "lawfully made under this title."
The problem is, that phrase is subject to interpretation. Wiley argued that it limited first-sale rights to goods made in the U.S.A. But Kirtsaeng said it prohibited people from re-selling counterfeits.
A trial judge and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Wiley.
But today, the Supreme Court accepted Kirtsaeng's interpretation. The judges in the majority put forward various reasons, but one in particular stands out: Limiting first sale rights to goods made in the U.S. would cripple numerous industries. "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," the majority wrote. "Museums, for example, are not in the habit of asking their foreign counterparts to check with the heirs of copyright owners before sending, e.g., a Picasso on tour."
The case drew the attention of numerous outside groups, including Google and eBay, as well as digital rights groups like Public Knowledge and the Center for Democracy & Technology. They weighed in with a friend-of-the-court brief on Kirtsaeng's side, while other organizations sided with Wiley.
Public Knowledge praised the decision, calling it a "big win for the public interest, students, libraries, retailers, and consumers of all sorts."