On Tuesday this week the Supreme Court ruled that goods made and sold abroad can be re-sold in The United States or online by third parties. Publisher John Wiley & Sons had brought a suit against a Thai graduate student named Supap Kirtsaeng, who resold international versions of textbooks to Americans online. Textbooks are generally far more costly in the United States than they are in most countries abroad, including Thailand, and many international versions of textbooks are identical to those sold in the United States.
In his opinion for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that publishers and manufacturers lose U.S. copyright protections after a work is lawfully sold abroad.
“We hold that the ‘first sale’ doctrine applies to copies of a copyright worked lawfully made abroad,” he said.
A ruling the other way would have greatly complicated matters for many online and discount stores across the United States, as well as creating a legal headache. Retailers testified to the court that more than $2.3 trillion worth of goods were imported in 2011, and significant portion of those goods had been purchased abroad previously.
The ruling in favor of Kirtsaeng may create a disincentive for publishing and other industries to sell goods abroad at lower prices than in the United States, creating a barrier to access for people in many foreign countries. Justices Elena Kagan and Samuel Alito wrote in a separate opinion that Congress can change the law if it believes copyright holders require greater protection.