A grad student named Supap Kirtsaeng came up with a clever idea: get his relatives to buy the foreign versions of textbooks where they’re cheap, and resell them over here where they’re not. He sold nearly a million dollars’ worth of foreign editions and made almost $100,000 off them.
One of the publishers behind books he had sold, John Wiley & Sons, didn’t like the idea and sued him for copyright infringement, the idea being that they hadn’t given permission for the books to be sold domestically – even though they were virtually identical to the domestic editions except for price.
The Associated Press says a jury first sided with the publisher, awarding them $600,000. Kirtsaeng fought it, and it ended up in the Supreme Court. In a 6-3 ruling, the judges decided that since the books were sold lawfully abroad, they no longer had any copyright protection and could be resold freely. Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg sided with the publisher.
A ruling that went the other way would have been a much bigger deal for American businesses. The AP says in 2011, more than $2.3 trillion in goods was imported, mostly for resale. It’s not clear what would have happened to companies like eBay and Costco, which sell lots of foreign-made goods.
The ruling could still have a big impact, in theory. Publishers may have to change their international pricing structures or give up making region-specific versions and that could lead to price hikes, an industry representative told the AP. But I’m not clear on the logic – if the books are more expensive here and less expensive there, they would be either lowering prices here or raising them abroad to compensate, right? Neither would seem to hurt American consumers.