19 March 2013

Law in Plain English: Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

Kirtsaeng moved from Thailand to the United States. He asked friends and family to buy foreign edition English-language textbooks in Thailand (where the prices were cheaper),  and to mail them to him in the United States. He then sold the books, and kept the profit. Wiley sued Kirtsaeng, alleging copyright violation. Kirtsaeng claimed reselling the books was a limitation to Wiley's exclusive rights under the first sale doctrine (codified at 17 U.S.C. 109(a)). The question before the Court was whether the first sale doctrine applies to works made abroad and then imported into the United States. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the phrase "lawfully made under this title" in Section 109(a) had no geographic limitation. As a result, the the first sale doctrine does in fact apply to works made aboard and then imported into the United States. The practical impact of this decision is to give consumers greater flexibility in taking advantage of the first sale doctrine.

Incidentally, I'm not at all disappointed to report that this is my first incorrect prediction of the term:
I was pessimistic about the outcome. Personally I think Justice Ginsburg's dissent is a better reading of current copyright law, but I'm not going to object.
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