In a blow to textbook publishers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that it is legal to import and sell international edition textbooks in the United States. The story begins when Supap Kirtsaeng, a Thailand-born student attending Cornell University, realized that he could buy the textbooks he needed for his college classes much more cheaply from textbook retailers in Thailand. So, the enterprising student asked family members in Thailand to ship international edition textbooks to him in the U.S. so he could sell them on eBay. It was a win-win for him. Kirtsaeng’s rapidly growing enterprise on eBay caught the attention of textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons, and they immediately decided to shut Kirtsaeng down by taking him to court. Eventually, the case landed at the Supreme Court, and ruling was issued in John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Kirtsaeng, 2013 WL 1104736 (Mar. 19, 2013).
According to Lexology.com, here are both sides of the legal argument:
Kirtsaeng argued Chapter 17 in Section 109(a) of the Copyright Act creates a statutory exception to a copyright owner’s exclusive right to distribute copyright-protected work; this exception is called first sale doctrine. The first sale doctrine says if we buy a copyrighted good from the copyright holder we have the right to sell the good to someone else. If we buy a textbook from a retailer, or another student who bought it legally, we have the right to sell the textbook later.
Wiley argued the U.S. Copyright Act is bound to the United States only; therefore, it is not possible to apply the U.S. Copyright Act to goods made in countries where U.S. law does not apply.
You should share this with your friends still in school
You mean to tell me, Wiley, that if I take a study abroad trip to, say, Hong Kong and purchase an international copy of a biology text, and then return home with it and sell it on eBay, I will face copyright liability? Organizations like You’ve Been Owned say this crazy, and if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed it, then we would have definitely been owned!
Fortunately, the U.S. Supremes ruled in favor of Kirtsaeng, “the first sale doctrine has no geographical implications … the first sale doctrine applies to works manufactured anywhere in the world as long as their manufacture met the requirements of American copyright law.”
In response to the high court’s decision, Thomson Reuters reports that Wiley proclaimed, “It is a loss for the U.S. economy and students, and authors in the U.S. and around the world.” Well, forgive me if I’m not weeping on behalf of the supposedly beleaguered textbook industry. This is a big victory for student coping with ballooning textbook costs, which are rising faster than inflation.
Some industry analysts say this ruling will force textbook publishers to sell textbooks at higher prices overseas, making them possibly unaffordable to students in less affluent nations. However, I just don’t buy that perspective, because textbook publishers are never going to set prices so high that they block an entire nation of prospective buyers. Publishers may be able to get away with enormously inflated prices in the U.S., where students are forced to dredge up funds however they can to buy books, but in poorer nations, prohibitive prices would just be bad business. Instead, publishers will probably begin printing different versions of textbooks for different regions of the world. Or, just as likely, they could have a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., persuade a congressional representative to propose a law requiring colleges who accepts Pell Grant money to require textbooks editions designated for North America. Perhaps this Supreme Court ruling will drive more digital textbooks sales! What do you think?
For more information, Artstechnica has an excellent article about this case.