We all know the thirft shop. You go. You buy The Great Gatsby. It is used. It is cheap. It is a great read. And potentially illegal contraband? That could be so. Under the Second Circuit’s ruling in John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Kirtsaeng, you may not resell copyrighted materials that are manufactured overseas in the U.S. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on Monday. Until Congress amends the Copyrigt Act to limit the first sale doctrine to copyrighted materials manufactured in this U.S., the Supreme Court should overrule the Second Circuit.
Under the first sale doctrine, you are permitted to buy a book and then resell it. The copyright owner no longer has a right to restrain your use of the book once you have paid for it. However, there is a provision in the Copyright Act which prohibits you from importing copyrighted works into the U.S. without first obtaining the copyright owner’s permission. The question is whether that provision of the Act applies to copyrighted works that are used.
In Wiley, the Second Circuit was asked to resolve the apparent conflict between these provisions of the Copyright Act. The defendant had family members buy academic books overseas and then send the books to him in the U.S. When here, he sold the books for a profit. The books were manufactured overseas, and were protected by U.S. copyright law. The plaintiff, a publisher of some of the books that defendant was importing, sued him for copyright infringement, claiming he was violating their right to decide what copyrighted goods to import, or not. His defense was that he was protected by the first sale doctrine because all of the books he was importing were used. The lower court refused to instruct the jury about the potential applicability of the defense, and the man was found liable for copyright infringment.
Using some mental gymnastics, the Second Circuit held in Wiley that the first sale doctrine did not apply to the books in question because they were manufactured overseas, whereas there would have been a defense had the books been manufactured domestically. The Second Circuit came to this decision after reading a concurrence by Justice Ginsberg in Quality King, a previous Supreme Court decision in which the court held that the first sale doctrine applies to copyrighted products produced in the United States and resold here after being re-imported. Even though the majority opinion in Quality King didn’t peg its first sale doctrine holding to the fact that the product in question was domestically produced, Justice Ginsberg suggested a different outcome could result if a product were produced overseas and then imported.
It seems if Congress wanted to expand a copyright holder’s rights beyond the first sale depending on whether the product in question was produced oversears, it could easily do so by amending the Copyright Act. Until then, it seems the best way to keep cool local thrift shops (and others) from getting sued and put out of business by major book publishers (or others) for selling used books (or other copyrighted items) manufactured overseas is for the Supreme Court to reverse the Second Circuit.