Supreme Court Rules it is Legal to Sell Imported Textbooks

The Supreme Court issued a pair of decisions last week that could have a significant impact on digital publishing and copyrighted products. The first ruling makes it potentially easier to import and sell textbooks from abroad, following a lawsuit involving a college student who was importing cheaper textbooks and selling them for a profit. The second decision makes it more difficult for plaintiffs in class-action suits to stay out of federal court.

“The copyright case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, No. 11-697, arose from the activities of a Thai student who attended Cornell University and the University of Southern California. The student, Supap Kirtsaeng, helped pay for his education by selling textbooks that his friends and relatives had bought in Thailand at low prices and shipped to him,” reports The New York Times.

Publisher John Wiley & Sons sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement and won $600,000 in the lower courts, but in a 6-to-3 Supreme Court decision, that award was thrown out. It was “ruled that imported copyrighted goods were subject to the same rules as goods bought in the United States: owners of particular copies can do what they like with them,” according to the article.

The decision extends to other products as well, including records, art and software.

“Industry groups had told the justices that a decision permitting copyrighted foreign goods to be sold in the United States would limit their ability to sell materials more cheaply in developing markets and result in higher prices over all,” notes the article.

“The case turned on a phrase in the Copyright Act, which limits the first-sale doctrine to works ‘lawfully made under this title.’ The lower courts said that textbooks manufactured outside the United States could not have been made under American law and so remained subject to the control of the owner of the copyright.”

Regarding the class-action case, Standard Fire Insurance Company v. Knowles, “the court unanimously ruled that plaintiffs’ lawyers could not avoid the requirements of a federal law that allows some kinds of class actions to be moved from state to federal court by promising to accept less money than the class might be owed,” reports NYT.