In a court ruling that has major implications for used good merchants across the country, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that forbid a textbook seller from reselling textbooks that he had purchased overseas.
In a 6-3 ruling, the court rejected publisher John Wiley’s interpretation of a rule known as the “first sale doctrine” which prevents copyright owners from exerting rights over a product once it has been purchased legally. This rule is what allows used book and music stores to sell used items without the copyright owners’ permission.
In recent years, copyright owners facing a wave of imported good have argued that “first sale” only applies to goods manufactured in the United States. Lower courts have till now sided with the copyright owners, producing considerable uncertainty about whether or not retailers can import and sell goods they legally purchase abroad.
Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer rejected John Wiley’s argument that the phrase “lawfully made under this act” implied a geographic limitation. He also cited the concerns of library associations, used-book dealers, technology companies, consumer-goods retailers, and museums — all of which had urged the court to reject the restricted notion of “first sale.”
Wiley CEO Stephen Smith expressed disappointment with the ruling, saying in a statement: “It is a loss for the U.S. economy, and students and authors in the U.S. and around the world.”
The John Wiley ruling comes three years after the Supreme Court failed to resolve the same issue in a dispute between watch maker Omega and the retailer Costco. In that case, Omega had put little pictures on its watches and then argued that Coscto infringed on its copyright when it imported them; that case produced a 4-4 tie which meant the lower ruling against Costco was upheld. The result was different this time with different judges on the bench.
The ruling is likely to be a relief for used booksellers and others who feared that geographical limits on first sale would harm their business. In the case before the Supreme Court, the defendant was a college student who had arranged for his family in Asia to buy textbooks and mail them to him in America where he sold them at a profit.
Justices Ginsburg, Kennedy and Scalia dissented from the ruling. To learn more about the first sale doctrine, read our background on the Wiley case here.
This story was updated at 3:30pm with a statement from Wiley’s CEO.