J. D. Heyes
Oct 10, 2012
You would think the U.S. Supreme Court might have more important cases to decide when the nine justices reconvene this fall to begin their next session than whether or not you have the right to resell your own stuff, but you’d be wrong.
Tucked amid high-profile cases including alleged breaches of U.S. law on international soil, the death penalty and affirmative action is whether justices will permit you to “resell everything from your grandmother’s antique furniture to your iPhone4,” The Wall Street Journal/Marketwatch reported recently.
What’s the problem? Isn’t something yours to do with as you please once you buy it? Hasn’t it been that way forever?
At issue, the website says, in the case Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons is something called the “first-sale doctrine,” and it pertains to copyright law. The doctrine permits you to buy and sell things like books, artwork and furniture, electronics and CDs, DVDs and loads of other stuff without having to first obtain permission from the copyright holder of those items.
Getting another piece of the financial pie
The doctrine has been recognized by the Supreme Court since 1908; under it, you are allowed to resell your property without hassle or worry because the copyright holder only had control over the first sale.
It works like this: though Apple has the copyright on its iPhones, iPads and other products, and an author has the copyright on his or her book, “you can still sell your copies to whomever you please whenever you want without retribution,” MarketWatch said.
Why would those copyright holders suddenly object?
Why else? Because they are pursuing another option to make money, so the old doctrine is now being challenged regarding products made abroad (which is a whole lot of stuff). What’s more, a federal court has already ruled in favor of these corporate copyright holders; if the Supreme Court upholds that ruling, it means the copyright holders of anything you own that’s been manufactured in any other country – China, Japan, or a European country – would have to grant you permission if you ever wanted to sell it.
Industry analysts say if the high court supports the lower court’s ruling, it is sure to put a further damper on economic activity.
“It means that it’s harder for consumers to buy used products and harder for them to sell them,” Jonathan Band, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries and the Association for Research Libraries, told the website. “This has huge consumer impact on all consumer groups.”
And, analysts note, you can bet the original copyright holder won’t grant permission to resell your item without some financial incentive to do so – like grabbing another piece of the re-sale.
‘Absurd to say anything manufactured abroad can’t be sold here’
What makes this whole concept ridiculous on its face is the scope of items the ruling would affect – everything from your i-whatever to family jewels and other items passed down to you and your family for generations. “It could be a book that was written by an American writer but printed and bound overseas, or an Italian painter’s artwork,” says MarketWatch.
Getting the picture?
The implications are far-reaching; imagine how the ruling could impact lucrative U.S. companies set up almost exclusively to handle second-hand items, like eBay and Craigslist.
“It would be absurd to say anything manufactured abroad can’t be bought or sold here,” said Marvin Ammori, a First Amendment lawyer and Schwartz Fellow at the New American Foundation who specializes in technology issues.
The case stems from the college experience of Supap Kirtsaeng, a native of Thailand who came to the U.S. in 1997 to study at Cornell University. He discovered that his textbooks, which were produced by Wiley, were much cheaper to buy in his own country, so he encouraged his relatives there to buy the cheaper books and ship them to the U.S. Eventually he sold them on eBay and made some $1.2 million.
“Wiley, which admitted that it charged less for books sold abroad than it did in the United States, sued him for copyright infringement,” said MarketWatch. “Kirtsaeng countered with the first-sale doctrine.”
This article was posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 2:13 am