world[1] Joanna has railed at length about the obnoxiousness of the regional restrictions in publishing that limit the availability of e-books from country to country. Even though it is possible to import a printed book from another country, those who want another nation’s e-book are largely out of luck.

It appears that at least some publishers are moving to reduce these frustrations; a few days ago GalleyCat reported on HarperCollin’s announcement that it was merging its US SF/fantasy imprint, Eos, and its Australia/New Zealand imprint, Voyager, into a global imprint called Harper Voyager.

At eReads, HarperCollins worldwide CEO Brian Murray had had this comment: "Uniting our sister companies in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia/New Zealand allows readers globally unparalleled access to books and authors. This move enables us to offer authors a strong global publishing platform when signing with HarperCollins — whether the acquiring editor is in New York, Sydney, or London."

But at the same time, others are moving to bring the same regional restrictions to printed works. Publishers Weekly reports that the Association of American Publishers is asking the Supreme Court to uphold a Ninth Circuit ruling that holds the “first sale doctrine” does not apply to copyrighted works manufactured and acquired overseas.(Found via The Bookseller.)

The case in question actually applies to wristwatches, involving Omega-branded wristwatches manufactured for sale overseas. A distributor purchased them and sold them to warehouse-store chain Costco, who started selling them in California stores. Omega sued, but because of a precedent set by an earlier case the suit actually involved the copyrighted Omega logo stamped on the watches rather than the actual watches themselves. The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Omega. Ars Technica has the complete details of the case.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge have filed a joint amicus brief blasting the decision for espousing a “bogus copyright theory”. But the Association of American Publishers, as mentioned above, filed one in its favor.

The Publishers Weekly article quotes an AAP exec as saying it is a particularly important issue for American educational publishers, because college students are buying overseas editions of textbooks “in the mistaken belief that these foreign editions […] are identical in content and production quality to the books being used in their college courses.”

Given the high prices of textbooks these days, it’s not surprising that students would find any way to save that they possibly could, and regional edition differences might well be the problem the exec says they are. (Though I recall I bought at least one UK edition of a textbook in my own college years, and never noticed the difference.)

But unsaid is the fact that mass market publishers would probably be happy about it as well—if the precedent this case would set had been in effect ten years or so ago, it might have been illegal for Harry Potter-crazed readers to import the British editions of the first couple of books that were available months in advance of the American editions.

The American and British publishers began releasing the books simultaneously after they saw which way the wind was blowing, which certainly proved beneficial for American consumers—or at least, those who were Harry Potter fans. But if this precedent was in force, they could simply have kept from shipping the books instead.

And for that matter, there are still American Potter fans who prefer to buy the British editions, because they like the cover art better or because they’d rather read the versions that have all the original Britishisms intact. (Or because they prefer Stephen Fry’s audiobook readings to Jim Dale’s.) Under this precedent, they would be strictly out of luck.

Such a ruling would also render the code-over-law implementation of DVD region coding obsolete, for that matter. Region codes were implemented largely for the same reason—to segment the market and prevent people from being able to buy and watch cheaper editions of movies from overseas markets, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if the DMCA hadn’t made cracking DRM illegal. (Of course, the DRM was promptly cracked anyway, and subsequently essentially ignored by anyone serious about watching movies.)

Of course, I’m not a lawyer so it’s possible I could be reading this wrong. It might just apply to businesses importing copyrighted works from overseas and then reselling  them (as Costco did), not to individuals ordering copyrighted products from overseas companies for their own personal use (like Harry Potter or movie fans).

The thing is, I thought that was the way the law worked already. Certainly Harmony Gold was able to stop American toy companies from importing and reselling toys relating to the Macross Japanese animated series, claiming to own all Macross-derivative rights outside of Japan due to the result of the licensing deal that created the TV show Robotech.

At any rate, I am sure that the Supreme Court will seriously consider all the implications of such an important decision. Hopefully they will find in favor of Costco, and not set a precedent that could potentially send the international nature of printed books backward just when e-books may be starting to find their way clear of these boundaries.


  1. let’s see the other publishers following harpercollins lead and offer their ebooks worldwide. like i’ve been saying all along: offer us the books and we will buy them; a dollar in the hand is better than not. don’t care about pbooks.

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