There’s a case before the Supreme Court right now that many in and around the publishing industry are watching (and I should have covered sooner). Some in the publishing industry are watching in the hopes that the USSC gives them what they have lusted after for decades, and a lot of us are watching out of fear that the wrong decision will cost us our right to resell the stuff we bought.
The case is Wiley v Kirtsaeng, and I am covering it today because some of the worst-case scenarios are already playing out. (More on this at the end of the post.)
Supap Kirtsaeng as a foreign exchange student in the US, and he had built a small business out of having his family and friend buy textbooks in his native Thailand. The textbooks were then shipped to Kirtsaeng and he sold them on Ebay.
Like many textbook publishers, Wiley sells the same textbook for less in poor countries like Thailand than in the US. That created an opportunity for an entrepreneurial individual to build a business based on the simple idea of buying in a market where the price is low and selling in a market where the price is high. (This is called arbitrage.)
Wiley naturally saw this in a less than favorable light and sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement in 2008. After a couple rounds of argument, ruling, and appeal, this case ended up in the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where a 3 judge panel decided that Kirtsaeng did not have any right to sell the textbooks (ruling).
As the judges saw it the first sale doctrine (the legal principle which allows you to resell physical content you have legally bought) did not apply to the textbooks from Thailand. Their interpretation was that this doctrine only applied to items manufactured in the US.
This interpretation is not entirely out of the question; there’s actually a legal basis for it. But when you consider the broad-ranging effect of the Second Court ruling, that’s when things get crazy.
It’s not just that you cannot sell your (made in China) DVDs, or the fact that you cannot sell anything that came with a user manual and was made in another country. No, it’s when you realize that this decision includes software that understand realize just how insane it is. Software is copyrighted, so if the device it is running on was made outside the US you cannot sell it.
That means you cannot sell you mp3 player. You cannot sell your Kindle. You cannot sell your computer. You can’t even sell a car, not unless you want to first get permission of the manufacturer.
But wait – there’s more. Thanks to this decision it is now illegal to sell most homes.
I’m Not Kidding.
I just walked through my mother’s house, and she cannot sell it without first getting permission from Honeywell (digital thermostat), Whirlpool (dishwasher, washing machine), Trane (furnace), GE (microwave, dryer), or Maytag (stove).
That, folks, is the situation which the USSC is considering at the moment. If they uphold Wiley v Kirtsaeng then things will get very strange in the used stuff market. But that’s not why I am posting today.
There are many people (ranging from consumer advocates to basically anyone who can count above 10 without taking their shoes off) who believe that some publishers will immediately turn this decision to their advantage. They will use it to kill of the used book market and to
extort extract more money from libraries. The more nefarious ones will contract out their printing operations to offshore presses. The publishers will then import the books secure in the knowledge that the books cannot be resold or lent without the permission of the publisher.
Textbook publishers hate the used textbook market and there are publishers of all stripes that don’t like libraries and the way they enable multiple serial users (checking content out to many patrons, one at a time). This ruling can and will be used to harm both students who depend on the used textbook market and library patrons.
And guess what? We are already seeing the kind of crap that publishers will pull if they can get away with it.
I was reading the Scholarly Communications @ Duke blog this morning. It’s a copyright law blog, and today’s post related to two examples of publishers trying to control what libraries do with legally acquired content (in this case, a DVD and a textbook).
These 2 publishers clearly want to control what happens to the material they sell after it is sold. They have few legal ways to do that now, but if Wiley v Kirtsaeng is upheld that will change.
These 2 publishers stand as examples of how this ruling can be used to harm me, you, and pretty much everyone except pirates. Anyone who says that this won’t happen is either a fool or a liar.
I do not make the claim that all publishers will pull some kind of dirty trick, but I can predict with absolute certainty that some will. And when you add that prediction to the many problems this ruling will cause for virtually everything sold in the US, it becomes clear that the case needs to be decided in favor of common sense.
As it stands, Kirtsaeng v Wiley fails to take into account the reality of the world we live in. Far too much of what is sold in the US is not made in the US. It makes little sense to exclude all this material from a core legal concept like the first sale doctrine.