Kirtsaeng’s Parade of [Less]-Horribles

by Caroline Marsili, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-Caroline-Marsili.jpgIn a 6-3 decision that came down March 25, the Supreme Court held that copyright’s first sale doctrine, which allows the lawful purchaser of a copyrighted product to resell the product without interference from the copyright holder, applies to copyrighted works lawfully made abroad. Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons marks the resolution of a decades-long uncertainty over the potential international reach of the first sale doctrine. This moment of clarity, however, is sure to be followed by challenges, given the newly-sanctioned threat to some domestic industries.

book_pile.jpgFrom a legal standpoint, the case was rightly decided. Briefly, plaintiff publishing company John Wiley & Sons sought relief from Cornell student-turned-professor Supap Kirtsaeng, who paid his way through university by reselling Wiley’s English-language textbooks manufactured abroad. Kirtsaeng’s family bought the books in Thailand and mailed them to Kirtsaeng, who resold them on eBay for a profit. In finding for Kirtsaeng, the majority attempted to reconcile a tension between the language of § 602(a)(1) of the Copyright Act, which gives copyright owners redress for unauthorized importation of their copyrighted work into the U.S., and the first sale doctrine (§ 109(a)), which gives owners of particular copies “lawfully made under this title” the right to sell the copy without the owner’s permission.

As author Benjamin Hamborg astutely foreshadowed in John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Kirtsaeng: The Uncertain Future of the First Sale Doctrine (Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Vol. 13.2), the Court reasoned that the text of 109(a) contains no geographical limitations, and that Congressional intent and historical context further require an interpretation of first sale unbound by territory. Justice Breyer’s majority opinion further acknowledges the far-reaching policy implications a geographical limitation would have on “[a]ssociations of libraries, used-book dealers, technology companies, consumer-goods retailers, and museums.” In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg criticized the Court’s “parade of horribles” as unfounded, and observed the opinion would frustrate Congress’s intent to permit international market segmentation by copyright owners. Ultimately, in reversing the Second Circuit and criticizing a “purely geographical interpretation” of 109(a), the decision represents a victory for institutions such as libraries and for consumers.

But while the Court dodged the parade of horribles that Justice Breyer adamantly sought to avoid in oral arguments, the international reach of first sale sounds alarms for U.S. companies that will be threatened by unrestricted gray market competition. A recent NYTimes article aptly identifies some of the other horribles waiting in the wings of an international exhaustion doctrine, including the undercutting of domestic software prices, de-segmentation of international publishing markets, threats to a burgeoning secondhand digital marketplace (though first sale may not apply here), and another nail in the coffin of print publications. Further, Kirtsaeng has the potential to set an example for amateur sellers to profit from gray market goods.

So what’s to be done? In “Next Moves For IP Law After SCOTUS First-Sale Ruling,” Lisa Shuchman suggests a number of options for copyright owners to numb the sting of Kirstaeng. Options include pursuing other legal remedies like contract and more expansive trademark protection, digitizing their protected content, raising domestic prices (to off-set losses from sale of imported copies), and pursuing statutory reform. Others suggest first sale is on its way to mootness in an increasingly digital economy. Raustiala and Sprigman’s solution? “Stop selling copies. Start licensing digital files.” Still others argue statutory reform is unavoidable. Andrew Albanese suggests the Court did what was best with a convoluted statute, but that Congress will need to address the outdated Copyright Act.

Though Kirstaeng undoubtedly provides much-needed clarification on the status of first sale, the story isn’t over for domestic copyright owners seeking to prevent unwanted, but now legal, importation of their works. Grab a seat on the curb . . .