Learn More than You Ever Wanted about The First-Sale Doctrine

While I try to be politically agnostic on this site, I am all in favor of exposing bad legislation or rules that hurt consumers. Something that’s getting, or will get, a lot of attention is the Supreme Court case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons (SCOTUSblog). 

The issue is “How do Section 602(a)(1) of the Copyright Act, which prohibits the importation of a work without the authority of the copyright’s owner, and Section 109(a) of the Copyright Act, which allows the owner of a copy ‘lawfully made under this title’ to sell or otherwise dispose of the copy without the copyright owner’s permission, apply to a copy that was made and legally acquired abroad and then imported into the United States?”

Although the case has been pending since December, we’re hearing more about this because of the pending election. The issue stems around the “First-Sale Doctrine.” “[T]he doctrine means that you can buy and sell the stuff you purchase. Even if someone has copyright over some piece of your stuff, you can sell it without permission from the copyright holder because the copyright holder can only control the ‘first-sale.’ The Supreme Court has recognized this doctrine since 1908.” See this article for more in-depth information.

Ultimately, what’s happening is that special interests in the media and other entities are banding together, like they did for SOPA, and asking SCOTUS to make it impossible for you to ever “own” or sell second-hand goods. And if you do sell the goods, without obtaining the right to, you’re violating copyright law.

Now, this case specifically deals with goods/copyrights on stuff made outside of the United States. Essentially, the 2nd Circuit ruled that anytime you sell something through eBay, Craigslist, or even a yard sale, you’re going to need to determine whether the product is US or foreign manufactured, then get the permission of the copyright holder before selling the item…even though theoretically you already purchased the ownership rights in that item.

As the Atlantic’s Marvin Ammori writes:

Courts are supposed to interpret laws to avoid “absurd results” and to avoid constitutional problems — such as infringing on the free speech rights of Americans that want to buy and sell their own books and creative works that are published abroad and taking away the property rights, without compensation, of the millions of Americans who buy and sell their own stuff every day, in person and online.

Ultimately the Court must choose between bringing copyright law into the Internet age or consigning us all to the dark ages. I hope they choose wisely.

Me too, Mr. Ammori. Me too.

You can help fight this plague of anti-consumerism by signing this petition, and by waging the same war we did against SOPA.

Photo: Estatic Mark via Flickr

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Jeff Taylor

I’m just an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. I’m also an attorney and I blog about Android for lawyers. You can follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Google+.