Supreme Court to hear case on First Sale Doctrine of copyright

Have you ever heard of the First Sale Doctrine? It’s the name for the legal doctrine that holds that a copyright holder cannot dictate what happens to his or her expression of a work after he or she sells it. In other words, once a Florida resident buys a book, he or she can sell, give or destroy his or her copy of that book (though not the underlying work itself) without interference from the copyright holder.

The First Sale Doctrine is a pretty well-settled area of law, but it isn’t set in stone. On Oct. 29, the Supreme Court will hear a case that should determine whether it applies only to work manufactured in the U.S.

The case, Supap Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley Sons, was filed after Supap Kirtsaeng, a Thai resident studying at Cornell, resold books that had been published overseas on eBay. Apparently, Kirstsaeng was not merely reselling his own books. Evidence presented to lower courts estimates he made between $900,000 and $1.2 million, so it seems likely he was running a pretty lucrative business.

The case has attracted a lot of interest. The American Library Association, eBay the Association of Research Libraries and Goodwill have formed a coalition to “educate members of Congress” about why it’s important to protect the integrity of the First Sale Doctrine. Evidently, the fear is that a decision against Kirtsaeng could chip away at their right to resell or loan out copyrighted material.

We will be watching this case closely and will use this blog to bring you relevant updates.

Source: Library Journal, “Library Associations Brace for First Sale Fight with Owners’ Rights Lobby Effort,” Meredith Schwartz, Oct. 23, 2012