Supreme Court Rules on the Resale of Books

Just the other day, on March 19th, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons case. And, for those of you who haven’t heard of this yet, it’s a a bit of a doozy.

We all know about resources like Ebay and Amazon where people can sell original or used items for personal profit and I’m willing to bet that most of us out there have experienced a garage or yard sale at least once or twice in our lives whether we were on the selling or the buying end. (As a lover of Austin, Texas, I can safely say that garage sales are pretty much a way of life for a lot of people.) Well, perhaps because all of this is so commonplace, my surprise was all the greater when I learned that a publishing company had actually pressed charges against a college student for doing just that. This connects especially well with my previous post wherein I discussed the trickiness of international copyright law because, while the accused was essentially conducting a garage sale, he was doing so because he was able to take advantage of rock bottom prices in Thailand first.

But let me backtrack and give you the full story.

According to a recent Forbes article by Eric Goldman, in 1998 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “a copyrighted item manufactured in the U.S. and initially sold outside the U.S. could be legally imported back into the U.S. pursuant to copyright’s First Sale doctrine (17 U.S.C. 109),” though they ended up leaving the barn door wide-open on the question of the legality of importing into the U.S. a copyrighted product for resale that was manufactured elsewhere (Goldman).

The main players:

The plaintiff, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (JWS), is a U.S. textbook publisher with a foreign subsidiary, Wiley Asia, to which JWS assigns rights to publish and sell foreign editions of its textbooks.

The defendant, Kirtsaeng, is a college student who moved from Thailand to the U.S. in order to further his mathematics studies.

The drama:

Finding the price of his textbooks in the U.S. to be quite high (at least compared to those in Thailand), Kirtsaeng promptly enlisted friends and family abroad to purchase foreign editions of English-language textbooks and to then ship those copies to him in the U.S. where he then resold them for a tidy profit.

Thus, JWS pressed charges against Kirtsaeng, “claiming that Kirtsaeng’s unauthorized importation and resale of its books was an infringement of Wiley’s…exclusive right to distribute and…import prohibition” (U.S. Supreme Court, 1-2).

The case of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. was argued in October of 2012 and finally ruled upon this March (the 19th).  The Supreme Court ruled that the “‘exclusive rights'” of a copyright owner to sell/distribute copies of their copyrighted item “are qualified by…several limitations…including the ‘first sale’ doctrine, which provides that ‘the owner of a particular copy…is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy” (U.S. Supreme Court, 1).

Essentially, the Supreme Court dramatically altered the way that textbook publishers must now sell and produce their books as most are already operating on hair-thin margins. In other words, while this may be terrific for textbook consumers in the short-run (as Goldman so deftly points out, “a textbook publisher who sells a low-priced book in Thailand won’t be able to sell the same textbook in the U.S. market for a much higher price”), this consumer benefit won’t last for long as publishers work to adapt their pricing and sale methods accordingly and likely tighten their belts with regards to how many books they actually publish and in what formats (Goldman).

What does this mean for you and me? Well, it has vast implications for the future of the scholarly publishing industry and of how textbooks and other scholarly books are written, bought, sold, and marketed. For example, it might signal an even larger impetus for publishers to move to producing e-versions of their texts exclusively. After all, publishers may find it easier to protect the content of a book than a physical book item, especially since copyright laws are much clearer regarding copyrighted materials than physical books themselves.

Copyright law, as may seem obvious now, isn’t simply something that protects the rights of an owner of copyrighted work, but also something that helps promote the publishing/producing of creative works generally (as copyright ownership is a large part of what enables owners to make a profit). This isn’t just something to help a publisher stuff its pockets; this is something that helps writers and artists as well. Copyright law, some would argue, is also meant to benefit readers and consumers as, presumably, a product that was well-written, well-edited, well-funded, and well-produced will then translate into a generally better product for the consumer than one that had its corners cut at every stop along the conveyor belt.

What do you think of this dilemma? How does it make you feel as a reader/consumer? As an artist/producer?

P.S. for a Nerd Out! 😀

MLA has finally posted formal means of citing Tweets, Listservs, Blog Posts, and Discussion Groups in academic/scholarly papers!!

Check it out at:

Goldman, Eric. “The Supreme Court’s First Sale Ruling Will Spur Price Competition in the Short Run, But Enjoy It While It Lasts.” Forbes. 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. 

Supreme Court of the United States. Syllabus: KIRTSAENG, DBA BLUECHRISTINE99 v. JOHN WILEY & SONS, INC, No. 11-697. U.S. S.C., 2013. Web. PDF file.


And don’t forget!!

If you have any comments that you’d like to have formally incorporated into the collaborative paper regarding collaboration and copyright law — please, please send them my way (just in the comment box like usual) and mark them with three asterisks ***.


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