At issue in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons is the first-sale doctrine in copyright law, which allows you to buy and then sell things like electronics, books, artwork and furniture, as well as CDs and DVDs, without getting permission from the copyright holder of those products.
Under the doctrine, which the Supreme Court has recognized since 1908, you can resell your stuff without worry because the copyright holder only had control over the first sale.
Put simply, though Apple Inc. AAPL -2.13% has the copyright on the iPhone and Mark Owen has it on the book “No Easy Day,” you can still sell your copies to whomever you please whenever you want without retribution.
That’s being challenged now for products that are made abroad, and if the Supreme Court upholds an appellate court ruling, it would mean that the copyright holders of anything you own that has been made in China, Japan or Europe, for example, would have to give you permission to sell it.
“It means that it’s harder for consumers to buy used products and harder for them to sell them,” said Jonathan Band, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries and the Association for Research Libraries. “This has huge consumer impact on all consumer groups.”
Another likely result is that it would hit you financially because the copyright holder would now want a piece of that sale.
It could be your personal electronic devices or the family jewels that have been passed down from your great-grandparents who immigrated from Spain. It could be a book that was written by an American writer but printed and bound overseas, or an Italian painter’s artwork.
There are implications for a variety of wide-ranging U.S. entities, including libraries, musicians, museums and even resale juggernauts eBay Inc.
…Both Ammori and Band worry that a decision in favor of the lower court would lead to some strange, even absurd consequences. For example, it could become an incentive for manufacturers to have everything produced overseas because they would be able to control every resale.
It could also become a weighty issue for auto trade-ins and resales, considering about 40% of most U.S.-made cars carry technology and parts that were made overseas.
Keep in mind that some goods are put together across multiple countries and ask yourself: Do I even know where the goods I want to sell are made? Imagine having to break the law dozens of times just to have a yard sale. That’s the reality we may be headed towards.
Of course, you may assume that it’s no big deal because you think no one will ever enforce the law. Keep in mind, folks, we live in a country where people trying to feed the homeless and little kids’ lemonade stands draw harassment and fines from government bureaucrats. Once a law like this is put in place, especially if there’s money to be made from collecting fines, you can be sure that men with guns will show up to implement it. That’s what’s riding on the Supreme Court decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons.