On March 19, 2013, in Kirtsaeng v. Wiley & Sons, Inc., No. 11-697, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the “first sale” doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad. Specifically, a buyer or other lawful owner of a copy (of a copyrighted work) lawfully manufactured abroad is protected under the “first sale” doctrine and such buyer may bring that copy into the United States (and sell it or give it away) without obtaining permission to do so from the copyright owner.
Section 106 of the Copyright Act grants the owner of copyright exclusive rights including the right to distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership. One limitation on these exclusive rights falls under Section 109(a) of the Copyright Act (commonly referred to as the “first sale” doctrine), which provides that the owner of a particular copy lawfully made under this title is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy. Thus, once a copy has been lawfully sold or its ownership otherwise lawfully transferred, the buyer of that copy and subsequent owners are free to dispose of the copy as they wish. Section 602(a)(1) further provides that importation into the United States, without the authority of the owner of copyright under this title, of copies of a work that have been acquired outside the United States is an infringement of the exclusive rights to distribute copies under Section 106.
Wiley & Sons publishes academic books and assigns rights to publish, print and sell the English language textbooks abroad to its wholly owned foreign subsidiary. Supap Kirtsaeng, while studying in the United States, asked his friends and family to purchase copies of foreign edition English-language textbooks at Thai book shops, which sold the books at low prices, and to mail the books to him in the United States, wherein he used the books, sold them, reimbursed his family and friends and kept the profit.
In 2008, Wiley initiated a lawsuit against Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement on the grounds that Kirtsaeng’s unauthorized importation of its books and his later resale of those books amounted to an infringement of Wiley’s Section 106(3) exclusive right to distribute as well as the Section 602 related import prohibition. Kirtsaeng defended against the claim on the ground that the books he had acquired were “lawfully made” and that he had acquired them legitimately. His position was that the “first sale” doctrine under Section 109(a) permitted him to resell or otherwise dispose of the books without the copyright owner’s further permission. The District Court ruled that the “first sale” defense was not available to Kirtsaeng because the doctrine does not apply to “foreign-manufactured goods.” The Second Circuit agreed with the District Court.
The Court analyzed the language within these statutes, and in particular the phrase “lawfully made under this title.” Wiley argued that the phrase imposes a form of geographical limitation and that the “first sale” doctrine does not apply to copies of American copyrighted works manufactured abroad. Kirtsaeng argued that the phrase imposes a non-geographical limitation, and in particular, that the intention was for the phrase to mean “made in accordance with” or “in compliance with the Copyright Act.” In this case, Kirtsaeng asserted that the “first sale” doctrine would apply to copyrighted works as long as their manufacture met the requirements of American copyright law, e.g. copies manufactured abroad with the permission of the copyright owner. The Court considered the language of Section 109(a), its context and the common-law history of the “first sale” doctrine and concluded that Section 109(a) favors a non-geographical interpretation. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that, while Section 602(a)(1) makes clear that importing a copy without permission violates the owner’s exclusive distribution right, it also refers explicitly to Section 106(3), which is by its terms is subject to various limitations including the “first sale” limitation under Section 109(a).
A complete copy of the Court’s Opinion can be found on the United States Supreme Court’s website.