Libraries, retailers and others who buy copyrighted goods made abroad can resell them without violating federal copyright law, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
The justices' 6-3 ruling in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons handed a huge victory to organizations, institutions and individuals whose reliance on the first sale doctrine, wrote Justice Stephen Breyer, is "deeply embedded" in their practices.
"How, the American Library Association asks, are the libraries to obtain permission to distribute these millions of books?" wrote Breyer. "How can they find, say, the copyright owner of a foreign book, perhaps written decades ago?"
The decision stemmed from a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Wiley, publisher of academic textbooks made and sold in the United States and abroad. Wiley prohibits copies of its foreign textbooks to be imported without its permission. It sued Supap Kirtsaeng, a Thai student studying in the United States, who asked friends to buy copies of English-language textbooks in Thai bookstoressold at low pricesand mail them to him. Kirtsaeng resold them on eBay, reimbursed his friends, and kept profits of nearly $100,000. Wiley won in district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which affirmed $600,000 in damages.
Federal copyright law prohibits distribution of a copyrighted work without the copyright owner's permission. It also states that once a copy has been lawfully sold, the buyer and subsequent owners are free to dispose of it in any way.
The court's majority rejected Wiley's argument that language in the copyright law"lawfully made under this title"restricted the scope of the first sale doctrine geographically to copies manufactured domestically. Breyer was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.