The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will hear the appeal of Supap Kirtsaeng ’02, an alumnus who lost a $600,000 suit for copyright infringement in August. Oral arguments are set to begin in the fall.
The case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, will address the legality of importing textbooks manufactured and sold abroad and reselling them in the United States, The Associated Press reported.
While attending graduate school at the University of Southern California, friends and family of Kirtsaeng, a Thailand native, sent him textbooks they had purchased abroad. He then resold the books at a higher price to U.S. buyers on eBay, according to The Associated Press.
Eight of these books were published by the Asian subsidiary of publishing company John Wiley & Sons. John Wiley & Sons sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement in May 2010 and won a $600,000 settlement in August 2011.
Susan Spilka, vice president of communications for John Wiley & Sons, said that the publishers agree with the lower court’s decision.
“The [lower court] correctly concluded that those seeking to profit from the creative works of others cannot evade our intellectual property laws by importing copies from overseas,” Spilka said. “We look forward to defending that decision in the Supreme Court.”
The Supreme Court will consider whether the sale of textbooks that were manufactured and purchased abroad is protected by the first sale doctrine. Under the doctrine, which was established in a previous Supreme Court case, an individual who legally purchases a copyrighted work may sell or give away their copy of the work without permission from the original copyright holder.
Prof. Oskar Liivack, law, noted that because there is a higher demand for textbooks in the U.S. than in some countries, domestic publishers are often able to sell textbooks at a higher price.
“The exact same textbook is being sold all over the world … In richer countries [John Wiley & Sons] can charge more, and in other countries, that just wouldn’t fly,” he said. “If they want to sell them at all, they have to sell them at lower prices.”
Therefore, according to Liivack, publishers could generate a greater profit from U.S. distributors by simply importing and re-selling the textbooks themselves.
Allowing individuals to sell copies of the books printed in foreign countries in the U.S. would thus affect publishers because “they would not be able to easily support price differentials between the U.S. and other countries,” Liivack said.
Liivack added that there has been a “long-standing gray area” between the first sale doctrine and laws limiting imports into the U.S.
In 2010, the Supreme Court heard a similar case between Costco and watchmaking company Omega in which the justices split with a vote of four to four, according to the AP. The Court left the question unanswered in that case.