Once and a while my mom’s annoying addiction to certain news channels yields something of interest to me. A few days ago I caught a snippet of a story about a guy named Supap Kirtsaeng. He moved to the US from Thailand to pursue a degree at Cornell University in mathematics. Well I suppose he picked up a few business courses along the way. We all know how expensive textbooks can be but Kirtsaeng realized how much cheaper the foreign edition was and recruited his friends and family in their own book selling business. His contacts in Thailand would buy and send him books and Kirtsaeng would then sell the books on commercial websites. He would then reimburse any costs for the initial sales and importing of the texts and kept the profits. Supap Kirtsaeng made around 1.2 million USD.
How is this different from what we do everyday on Amazon and ebay? (Besides the fact that Supap Kirtsaeng was entirely more successful than most of us) Well we all know copyright is a funny fickle territorial thing. Our favorite authors are always talking about a book being released in this country or that, some are in one format and not another. Just because a book is being published here doesn’t mean the rights to that book have been sold in a foreign market. Different places have different rules but when we buy something here in the US we also buy the right to do what we want with it (in most cases).
Supap Kirtsaeng is being sued by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. and their overseas subsidiary John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte Ltd. (“Wiley Asia”), who manufacture their foreign editions. US copyright law has a “first sale doctrine” which allows a lawfully purchased copyrighted work to be resold with out any limitations set by the copyright holder because they only have control over that first sale. In essence beyond the initial sale you can sell your property without permission from the copyright holder.
The problem is, Kirtsaeng is reselling the (most likely) slightly different overseas version only authorized to be sold in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. An even bigger issue being brought up is the fact that these products are made overseas. If the supreme court upholds the appellate court’s ruling, it would mean anyone who wants to resell any products made in China, Japan, or Europe would have to get permission from whoever holds the copyright.
This goes way beyond textbooks.