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Important Supreme Court Case: Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons

   October 10th, 2012 Brian Herzog

I like it when issues are so relevant to me that I couldn't miss them if I tried.

Early last week, I was coordinating with a speaker for the upcoming NELA conference, when he mentioned the Supreme Court Case of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. It sounded vaguely familiar, but since I knew I could hear him talk about it next week, I didn't really pursue it.

A few days later, the same case showed up on BoingBoing, , nicely summarized:

Writing in MarketWatch, Jennifer Waters explains the implications of a Supreme Court case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, which turns on the question of whether you have the right to re-sell things you buy out of the country, or whether the copyrights embodied by your phones, clothes, gadgets, books, music, DVDs, and other possessions mean that you can't sell your stuff without permission from the original manufacturer.

Following Wiley's theory, you don't really own most of your possessions. You share ownership in your goods with the companies that made the goods you "bought" from them, and they get a veto over your disposal of them, and can also demand a cut of the proceeds.

It seems like something this ridiculous-sounding couldn't possibly come to pass, but remember this is also the Court that said corporations are people, sometimes.

And more significantly, a major publisher is involved. Here's where things started:

Wiley & Sons, a U.S. based textbook publisher with foreign affiliates, originally filed suit in the Southern District Court of New York against a Thai individual studying in the United States who obtained cheaper foreign-made editions of Wiley textbooks, printed by Wiley Asia, that he then resold on eBay in the U.S. for a profit. The District Court held that the first sale doctrine applies only to works manufactured in the United States.

We've already kissed the First Sale Doctrine goodbye with ebooks, and now it looks like applying it to physical items is threatened too. It seems like this would mean, at the very least, libraries would need to check all our books for "Printed in the USA" before we could resell them at a booksale, or else we risk breaking the law. But taken to the ridiculous extreme, it also sounds like individuals would have difficulty reselling almost anything made overseas - cell phones, cars, clothes, DVDs, etc.

The FBI will have to create a new task force, which could be dubbed "The Garage Sale Police," to enforce this if it becomes new copyright law. And in my opinion, anything that sounds like a reality show has got to be a bad idea.

But seriously, this is definitely something to pay attention to. Read more on MarketWatch and the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology Digest.

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