The era of the monolithic print textbook is coming to a close. The Kirtsaeng decision is the latest indication that it is not sustainable.
By now you’ve likely heard that the Supreme Court has ruled, in a 6-3 decision, in favor of immigrant scientist Supap Kirtsaeng in Kirtsaeng V. Wiley. In what’s being heralded as a win for consumers and libraries, and a loss for publishers, the SCOTUS overturned a previous ruling against Kirtsaeng, who had been buying textbooks printed (legally) abroad—where [...]
On March 19 the Supreme Court announced its much-anticipated decision in Kirtsaeng v. Wiley, a lawsuit regarding the bedrock principle of the first sale doctrine. The 6-3 opinion is a total victory for libraries and our users. It vindicates the foundational principle of the first sale doctrine—if you bought it, you own it. All who believe in that principle, and the certainty it provides to libraries and many other parts of our culture and economy, should join us in applauding the Court for correcting the legal ambiguity that led to this case in the first place. It is especially gratifying that Justice Breyer’s majority opinion focused on the considerable harm that the Second Circuit’s opinion would have caused libraries.
The case involves a US graduate student named Supap Kirtsaeng who coordinated with his family to buy less expensive foreign editions of textbooks abroad and re-sell them to college students in the US. These books were not pirate copies; they were genuine textbooks authorized by Wiley for manufacture and sale abroad. Nevertheless, Wiley brought suit, alleging that the purchase and resale of foreign-made copies in the US infringed copyright.
In what's being heralded as a win for consumers and libraries, and a loss for publishers, the SCOTUS overturned a previous ruling against Kirtsaeng, who had been buying textbooks printed (legally) abroad—where they cost significantly less than they do in, say, the United States—and then reselling them in the U.S. on eBay and turning a handsome profit in the process.
In a statement yesterday, Wiley's President & CEO Stephen M. Smith wrote: "We are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided in favor of Supap Kirtsaeng and overturned the Second Circuit’s ruling. It is a loss for the U.S. economy, and students and authors in the U.S. and around the world."
The importation of copyrighted goods made abroad has been an increasingly contentious issue in recent years. Easy access to Internet resale markets like eBay and Amazon have made it possible for a new breed of entrepreneurs to buy low and sell high in a wide array of areas.
Those upstarts have peeved a lot of corporations, and some of them used copyright law to fight back. Textbook maker John Wiley & Sons sued a Thai student-entrepreneur named Supap Kirtsaeng, who had been buying cheaper (but non-pirated) versions…
Most of us have probably sold an old book at a yard sale, on eBay, given it to a library, or some such thing. We probably never gave it a second thought. Maybe we need to. Maybe we are criminals, violating copyright law.
A case has come before the Supreme Court that could turn some of our assumptions upside down, at least as pertains to books produced overseas. Take that, Gutenberg! You better read Johannes' copyright notice before you sell your copy of his bible.