If you were like most college students, for each class you would spend $100 per college textbook, use it, and then at the end of the semester you would choose to keep it as a reference or resell the book back to the college bookstore. The original book publisher made money on the first sale, and the bookstore will double-dip profit on any additional resale of the book in further semesters.
The reason the used book can be further bought and sold is the concept of the “first sale doctrine” which allows the purchaser of a copyrighted work to use or sell it. It’s the same rule which allows us to resell our used CD’s and DVD’s. If the “first sale doctrine” did not exist, then we would never be able to resell anything copyrighted.
So what if you happened to find a place that would sell you the same book brand-new for $40? You would purchase it right? If you could sell some to your friends at $60? That’s still saving them money, and you’re making some as-well. Arbitrage FTW!
That’s exactly what Supap Kirtsaeng did when he was in school at Cornell, and his PayPal records showed that he made $1.2 Million in revenue from sales of books. So why does this matter to us that he figured out a way to profit from the sale of textbooks? It’s because the books that he sold in the US were the versions published for sale in a foreign country. Typically academic publishers will sell slightly different version of textbooks for far cheaper outside of the US.
In the Copyright Act of 1976, Congress enacted what is now 17 U.S .C. § 602(a)(1)
Importation into the United States, without the authority of the owner of copyright under this title, of copies or phonorecords of a work that have been acquired outside the United States is an infringement of the exclusive right to distribute copies or phonorecords under section 106, actionable under section 501.
It’s not that the books were made in a foreign country but that the publisher owned the US rights and is saying that the rule of the “first sale doctrine” does not hold for the same books published under copyright in a different country. They are saying that the books published in Thailand are illegal to be exported and are illegal to be sold in the US. Again, it’s all about the country of copyright versus the country of manufacture.
The case is going to the US Supreme Court in JOHN WILEY SONS INC v. KIRTSAENG It’s a pretty long read, but it is pretty interesting especially since for each claimed infringement he can be liable for some significant penalties.
This could make any online ecommerce company (like eBay and Amazon) that is handling third-party sales be at-risk as-well. I guess all of my imported Depeche Mode CD’s will need to stay in my collection next to my original Guttenburg bible until the Supreme Court decides. :P