Supreme Court rules importation of textbooks legal under First Sale doctrine
March 19, 2013 | 7:35 pm
Remember the Supreme Court case about the Thai exchange student who bulk imported cheap overseas copies of textbooks and resold them in the U.S. (making over $1 million in sales) to finance his doctorate? The judges handed down a decision today. By a six to three majority, they found that the student’s importation and resale was legal under the Fair Use Doctrine. Just because the books were printed overseas did not exempt them from the right of First Sale, which means that people who buy them can resell them as they please. Ars Technica has more details on the decision.
Essentially, there were three opinions written in the case. Four of the justices, lead by Breyer, agreed fully that First Sale covered lawfully-purchased goods no matter where they were made. Kagan and Alito signed a separate opinion agreeing but suggesting Congress needs to address problems with market segregation caused by today’s ruling—as I suggested in my prior article, this makes it harder for publishers to sell products cheaply enough for people in poor nations to buy them if people can turn right around and import and resell those poor-nation versions in the U.S.
The three dissenters, led by Ginsburg, suggest that First Sale’s defenders worry needlessly about theoretical problems that could never come to pass, and that the right of copyright owners to set international prices is protected by law.
So even though the majority of justices found in favor of first sale this time, another majority—five to four—feels that this represents a problem that should be remedied by Congress. So even if we have won the right to resell in the short term, expect publishers and their friends to begin lobbying for new laws before the ink even dries on the decision.