The right to sell your own stuff on eBay, Craigslist, at pawn shops, and garage sales is as American as apple pie, right? Not so fast! This year the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether you really do have a right to sell the stuff you own.
And no, I’m not kidding.
A case before the Court, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, threatens what is known as the “first-sale doctrine”or “the right of first sale” in copyright law.
According to Wall Street Journal Market Watch, under the first-sale doctrine, which the Supreme Court has recognized since 1908, Americans may legally “buy and then sell things like electronics, books, artwork, furniture as well as CDs and DVDs, without getting permission from the copyright holder of those products…without worry because the copyright holder only had control over the first sale.”
In other words, the first-sale doctrine says that copyright holders can control the first sale of their product, but not subsequent sales.
Take the iPhone for example. Apple can control who they will allow to sell the phones, how they’re sold, etc. But once you or I buy the phone, we can sell to someone else whenever and however we want – on eBay, Craigslist, or whatever.
And Honda can control who can sell their cars in America, and how they’re sold. But once I buy a Honda Pilot, I’m free to sell it on Craigslist or eBay, put a sign in the window and park it along a busy street, put an ad in the paper, trade it in to the dealer I bought it from, trade it in to another dealer, or whatever.
Appellate Court Ruled Against First-Sale Doctrine, Supreme Court is Next
A New York appellate court has already ruled against the first-sale doctrine in this case, for products made abroad. Which is why it is now before the Supreme Court.
According to MarketWatch, the Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons case “stems from Supap Kirtsaeng’s college experience. A native of Thailand, Kirtsaeng came to America in 1997 to study at Cornell University. When he discovered that his textbooks, produced by Wiley, were substantially cheaper to buy in Thailand than they were in Ithaca, N.Y., he rallied his Thai relatives to buy the books and ship them to him in the United States”
That sounds cool, right?
But Kirtsaeng didn’t just buy and resell his own text books. He had his relatives buy and send him hundreds or maybe even thousands of the books from Thailand, which he then sold in America on eBay to the tune of $1.2 million, according to court documents.
Wiley admitted that it did sell the books cheaper abroad than it did in the United States, but it sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement. Kirtsaeng countered with the first-sale doctrine.
If the Supreme Court upholds that ruling, it would mean that I would have to get Apple’s permission to sell my iPhone, and Honda’s permission to sell my Pilot.
It would mean that anyone who owns anything made in China, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Canada, Europe, or wherever, would have to get permission from the copyright holder in order for them to sell that product.
Do you own a car made in Japan? Furniture made in China? Clothes made in Cambodia? Before you could sell them, you’d have to get permission.
If Kirtsaeng v. John Wily & Sons is upheld, it could cripple marketplaces like eBay, Craigslist, and pawn shops, and make it nearly impossible for people to sell their foreign-made stuff. It could also mean that Americans would stop buying certain foreign-made products.
What do you think? Will this case be upheld or overturned? If it is upheld, will you stop buying foreign-made items?
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