The Supreme Court ruled today that textbooks and other goods made and sold abroad can be re-sold online and in discount stores without violating US copyright law. The outcome was a huge relief to eBay, Costco, and other businesses that trade in products made outside the US. In a 6-3 opinion, the court threw out a copyright infringement award to publisher John Wiley & Sons against Thai graduate student Supap Kirtsaeng, who used eBay to resell copies of the publisher's copyrighted books that his relatives first bought abroad at cut-rate prices.
Justice Stephen Breyer said in his opinion for the court that once goods are sold lawfully, whether in the US or elsewhere, publishers and manufacturers lose the protection of US copyright law. "We hold that the `first sale' doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad," Breyer said. Had the court come out the other way, it would have crimped the sale of many goods sold online and in discount stores, and it would have complicated the tasks of museums and libraries that contain works produced outside the United States, Breyer said. The movie and music businesses, software makers, and other manufacturers worry that the decision allows unauthorized sales to undercut their businesses. (Read more US Supreme Court stories.)