Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (US Supreme Court, Mar. 19, 2013)

The US Supreme Court holds that the “first sale” doctrine under US copyright law, whereby a copyright is “exhausted” upon the sale of a lawfully-acquired copy, applies where the sale occurs outside the US.

Facts

A US publisher sold English-language versions of textbooks outside the US at prices below that which it sold the same texts in the US. A citizen of Thailand resident in the US to attend college purchased these lower-priced textbooks and resold them in the US to help fund his education. The publisher sued him for copyright infringement, arguing that the lawful purchase of the textbooks outside the US did not eliminate the publisher’s right to prevent the resale of the textbooks in the US. The US Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the lawful purchase of the copyrighted works outside the US satisfied the statutory test that permitted the resale as an exception to the copyright holder’s rights.

Analysis

US copyright law creates rights as a part of interconnected statutory provisions. The basic copyright, embodied in Section 106 of the Copyright Act, gives a copyright holder the exclusive right to sell or resell copyrighted works. Section 109(a), however, creates an exception where a work has been lawfully sold. This “first sale” doctrine is said to “exhaust” the copyright holder’s rights. It was unsettled whether a first sale outside the US would be deemed to satisfy the statutory requirement. The Supreme Court held that it did. The effect of the ruling is to permit the resale of copyrighted works in the US that were lawfully acquired outside the country.