Associations Mixed on Landmark Copyright Decision

Earlier this week, when the Supreme Court decided that first-sale doctrine applies to internationally made goods, several associations pointed out ramifications for members and consumers, both negative and positive.

Associations may or may not like the outcome, but everyone agrees: The Supreme Court decided one of the most important copyright cases in decades earlier this week.

The court’s 6-3 decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons applied a major facet of copyright law—the first-sale doctrine, which allows owners of legally purchased copyrighted material to resell it—to foreign-made goods imported domestically. More details:

The decision: The case hinged on the resale of used textbooks by a Thai graduate student, Supap Kirtsaeng, who was able to acquire copyrighted books from relatives abroad at much lower prices than in the United States. When he sold the books on eBay at a considerable profit, the publisher sued. John Wiley & Sons won in the the lower courts, but the high court reversed, with Justice Stephen Breyer writing the majority opinion holding that “the ‘first sale’ doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad.” However, a separate concurring opinion by justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan left publishers and other groups an opening, suggesting that Congress would be free to change the law later. Kirtsaeng was initially on the hook for a $600,000 fine as a result of the initial verdict.

Associations hailing the decision: The Consumer Electronics Association praised the ruling, noting that CEA has long favored consumer freedom on copyright issues. “The court’s opinion, which reflects the advocacy of the tech and retail communities in support of Kirtsaeng, preserves the rights that the first-sale doctrine guarantees to manufacturers, retailers, libraries, consumers, and the public at large,” noted the association’s CEO, Gary Shapiro, in a blog post on Forbes. He added: “The Kirtsaeng case serves as an important reminder that the copyright monopoly must be limited to its constitutional purpose: ‘promot[ing] the Progress of Science and useful Arts.'” The Owners’ Rights Initiative said that the decision “clearly affirmed that the Copyright Act was not intended and cannot be misconstrued to limit the distribution of authentic goods.”

Associations criticizing the decision: Not surprisingly, many publishing groups reacted negatively to the decision. Association of American Publishers President and CEO Tom Allen said that “the decision will have significant ramifications for Americans who produce the books, music, movies, and other content consumed avidly around the world. The Court’s interpretation of the ‘first sale’ provision of U.S. copyright law will discourage the active export of U.S. copyrighted works. It will also reduce the ability of educators and students in foreign countries to have access to U.S.-produced educational materials, widely considered the world’s gold standard.” The Software and Information Industry Association also predicted negative fallout from the ruling, suggesting that “consumers and students abroad will see dramatic price increases or entirely lose their access to valuable U.S. educational resources created specifically for them.”

The full decision is available at the Bloomberg Law website.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!