By Caitlin Kenney, NPR
Say you buy a textbook in another country, where textbooks are cheap.
Then you bring the book back to the U.S. and sell it at a profit. Did
you break the law?
No, you didn’t. In a that came down
yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a student who had his
friends and relatives buy textbooks in Thailand which he later re-sold
in the U.S. on eBay.
The ruling was a key moment in something called the “”
doctrine, which says that, if you buy something that’s copyrighted,
you’re allowed to “sell or otherwise dispose” of it without the
permission of the copyright owner.
The publishing industry was, not surprisingly, unhappy with the decision. The Association of American Publishers put out a that said:
Court’s interpretation of the ‘first sale’ provision of US copyright
law will discourage the active export of US copyrighted works. It will
also reduce the ability of educators and students in foreign countries
to have access to US-produced educational materials, widely considered
the world’s gold standard.
The ruling means “you can’t have the ghost of copyright following the object around and policing it, ” said , a law professor at UC Berkeley who filed an
on behalf of the student. When I talked to him yesterday, he told me
the case has important implications for interpreting “first sale”
doctrine in the digital world.
A literal case in point: If you buy a song off of iTunes, can you turn around and sell it to someone else?
There’s a company called
that’s basically a digital version of a used record store. You can sell
them your old mp3s, and you can buy “used” mp3s that other people have
Capitol Records is suing ReDigi for copyright infringement. The complaint
that “ReDigi makes and assists its users in making systematic, repeated
and unauthorized reproductions and distributions of Plaintiffs
copyrighted sound recordings.”
ReDigi says what it’s doing is under the “first sale” doctrine.
The company argues that you own the songs, and you should be able to resell them just like you can a physical CD. It says its
can ensure compliance with copyright law, first by verifying that you
legally own a song, and then by removing all traces of the song from
your computer and synced devices once you decide to sell it.
Supreme Court ruling only covers physical copies of copyrighted works,
and its implications for digital resale are unclear. But Schultz says
the could sway the judge in the ReDigi case.
says first sale is really important and has always been part of law. I
think it will push him to find a way for ReDigi to work, to find a way
forward for them that copyright allows,” Schultz said.
Of course, Redigi isn’t the only company planning for the new digital resale future. Both and
recently applied for patents which would allow users to resell digital
content like e-books, music and movies to other users. According to the , both patents call for the seller to lose access to the file after the transfer has occurred.