The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling with a rather unusual lineup, delivered a major blow to publishing companies by upholding the right of a person to buy textbooks overseas at much lower prices and sell them at a profit. The case involved someone who found the same textbooks that sell for over a hundred dollars in the US available in Thailand at a far lower price, so he had relatives buy up the cheap books and sold them for a tidy profit here.
The lineup, as I said, was highly unusual. Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Sotomayor, Breyer, Alito, Roberts and Thomas; Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Ginsburg were in dissent. SCOTUSblog has an analysis of the ruling:
For a topic that has divided the Justices so evenly for so many years, the vigorous and uncompromising tone of Breyer’s opinion is surprising. In his view, for example, the language of the statute is quite clear, largely because the geographical argument has no answer to the problem that “neither ‘under’ nor any other word in the [statutory] phrase means ‘where.’” He also emphasized the prior version of the statute, which extended first-sale protection to any copy “lawfully obtained.” Because nobody argues that the older version was geographically limited, accepting the publisher’s view required the conclusion that Congress’s revision of copyright law in the 1970s was intended to sharply limit the first-sale doctrine. He also included a substantial section in the opinion contending that the doctrine’s historical roots (dating back to Lord Coke) counsel in favor of a broad reading.
At the oral argument, the Justices (especially Justice Breyer) seemed particularly concerned about what Justice Breyer called a parade of “horribles” that would ensue from adoption of the publishers’ point of view. So if that concern in fact swayed the votes of the central Justices, it should be no surprise that it got extended treatment in Justice Breyer’s opinion for the Court. Among other things, he noted the absurdity of thinking that libraries must obtain licenses to allow the lending of books printed overseas, that owners of foreign-manufactured telephones, laptops, and tablets must obtain consent from software publishers to resell them, or that museums that own paintings of foreign artists need the consent of the artists to display the paintings publicly.
The bottom line is that if you buy something that is protected by copyright, you can do with it as you please, including reselling it if you wish — and it doesn’t matter what country you bought it in.