WASHINGTON (CN) - A man who financed his doctoral studies by selling foreign textbooks on eBay may qualify for an exemption of copyright law, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
Supap Kirtsaeng used his Bluechristine99 account on eBay to finance a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Southern California after graduating from Cornell University. Kirtsaeng said his friends and family back home in Thailand shipped him foreign-edition textbooks made by John Wiley & Sons, and that he kept the profits for himself after reimbursing the purchase costs. Today, Kirtsaeng is teaching in Thailand, a condition of one of the scholarships that also helped fund his education.
In 2008, however, Wiley sued Kirtsaeng for selling eight foreign editions of its publications to U.S. consumers. The company relies on an Asian subsidiary to manufacture books for sale in foreign countries, and these editions are usually marked with a legend to designate that they are to be sold only in a particular country or region.
Wiley said Kirtsaeng earned $1.2 million through the sales of its books, though Kirtsaeng put the figure at $900,000.
The federal Copyright Act would usually exempt sales such as those that Kirtsaeng made under the first-sale doctrine, codified at Section 109, but application of that rule to foreign works is novel.
Chief U.S. District Judge Donald Pogue, who presided over the Manhattan trial by designation from the Court of International Trade, refused to let Kirtsaeng use the first-sale doctrine as a defense.
A federal jury then ordered Supap Kirtsaeng to pay Wiley $600,000 in damages, and a divided panel of the 2nd Circuit rejected Kirtsaeng's appeal entirely in August 2011.
After taking up the case in April 2012, the Supreme Court reversed, 6-3, on Tuesday.
"Putting section numbers to the side, we ask whether the "first sale' doctrine applies to protect a buyer or other lawful owner of a copy (of a copyrighted work) lawfully manufactured abroad," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority (parentheses in original). "Can that buyer bring that copy into the United States (and sell it or give it away) without obtaining permission to do so from the copyright owner? Can, for example, someone who purchases, say at a used bookstore, a book printed abroad subsequently resell it without the copyright owner's permission?
"In our view, the answers to these questions are, yes. We hold that the 'first sale' doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad."
Since subsection A of the Copyright Act refers to works "lawfully made under this title," Wiley argued that the law restricts the scope of the first sale doctrine geographically.
Kirtsaeng on the other hand argued that the reference implicates the work's manufacture in compliance with the Copyright Act, in other words a nongeographical interpretation.
The Supreme Court took Kirtsaeng's view, brushing off arguments from Wiley and the U.S. solicitor general as amicus curiae.