The sad story of Supap Kirtsaeng
Supap Kirtsaeng was an entrepreneurial University of Southern California graduate student in 2008. Mr. Kirtsaeng was trying to make money for college by recognizing an opportunity to purchase discounted goods abroad and sell them for a profit online. Kirtsaeng acquired textbooks through friends and family in Thailand who bought authentic textbooks in bookstores there; they would ship those textbooks to Kirtsaeng and he would sell them through various e-commerce sites. Kirtsaeng used the revenue from his entrepreneurial venture to pay his tuition.
Kirtsaeng was sued by the book publisher. The book publisher claimed that copyright law barred Kirtsaeng’s unauthorized sales of the textbooks. Kirtsaeng tried to claim that he was the lawful owner of those books, since he had paid full price for them, and he could now do with them what he wished. But the courts ruled against Kirtsaeng, holding that because the books were manufactured abroad, he was in violation of U.S. copyright law for being an unauthorized seller. The publisher was awarded damages of $600,000, more than 15 times the amount that Kirtsaeng made from the sale of the books.
On March 19, 2013, the Supreme Court announced that it had ruled in favor of Kirtsaeng. The opinion of the court demonstrates strong support for owners’ rights.
“…We ask whether the “first sale” doctrine applies to protect a buyer or other lawful owner of a copy (of a copyrighted work) lawfully manufactured abroad. Can that buyer bring that copy into the United States (and sell it or give it away) without obtaining permission to do so from the copyright owner? Can, for example, someone who purchases, say at a used bookstore, a book printed abroad subsequently resell it without the copyright owner’s permission?
In our view, the answers to these questions are, yes. We hold that the “first sale” doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad.”
–Justice Breyer, Kirtsaeng Opinion