Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2012 Issue

Could Selling an Old Book Become Illegal?

Youboughtit

Motto of the Owners' Rights Initiative.

Most of us have probably sold an old book at a yard sale, on eBay, given it to a library, or some such thing. We probably never gave it a second thought. Maybe we need to. Maybe we are criminals, violating copyright law. A case has come before the Supreme Court that could turn some of our assumptions upside down, at least as pertains to books produced overseas. Take that, Gutenberg! You better read Johannes' copyright notice before you sell your copy of his bible.

This issue arose from the brainchild of Supap Kirtsaeng, a student from Thailand attending college in America. He noticed textbooks are very expensive in America, and he was not a wealthy young man. However, he recalled that textbooks were much cheaper in Thailand, so he wrote to his family and asked them to see if they could find cheaper versions of the school books he needed back home. Indeed they could. American book publishers frequently print identical or very similar editions of the books they publish in America and sell them for much lower prices overseas.

Mr. Kirtsaeng saw the light. Not only was he struggling with the high cost of books, but so were his fellow students. So, he asked his family to send him a whole bunch of books from Thailand. He began selling them in America, posting the books on eBay. He could sell them to American students for a lot less than they could buy them at the student bookstore, while still making a tidy profit for himself. Mr. Kirtsaeng was happy. Students were happy. John Wiley and Sons (publishers) was not. They sued Mr. Kirtsaeng.

Here is what Wiley prints in their overseas editions: “This book is authorized for sale in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East only [and] may not be exported. Exportation from or importation of this book to another region without the Publisher’s authorization is illegal and is a violation of the Publisher’s rights. The Publisher may take legal action to enforce its rights. The Publisher may recover damages and costs, including but not limited to lost profits and attorney’s fees, in the event legal action is required.” Wiley sued and won. Mr. Kirtsaeng was ordered to pay $600,000. Evidently, he sold a lot of books, though perhaps not enough to cover a judgment of this magnitude. Reportedly, he is back in Thailand.

Now, this case has made its way up to the Supreme Court, and there are many parties looking to overturn the verdict. The consequences are wide-ranging. One such group is called the “Owners' Rights Initiative,” and its motto is “if you bought it, you own it.” Among its members are the American Library Association, the American Association of Law Libraries, eBay, Goodwill Industries, and Powell's Books, the large Oregon used books retailer. There are also many technology vendors, as the same issue arises with high-tech gadgets purchased overseas.

The issue at hand involves possible conflicts within the copyright law. One side relies on one of the most basic of rules, handed down by the Supreme Court in 1908, and codified in the copyright law a year later. It's called the “first sale doctrine.” Before this court decision, Bobbs-Merrill, in its copyright notice, added a limitation on reselling their books. In other words, if you tried to resell your copy of a book that you bought at a store, you might be violating their copyright. The court said no, and copyright law now includes the “first sale doctrine.” It says that after that first sale, the buyer may sell or otherwise dispose of that book however he or she sees fit without violating the copyright law. You (as an American) may safely sell or give away any book published in the United States without fear of violating the copyright law. The copyright law prevents you from copying a book, but not from reselling the copy you bought from the publisher.

In the 1990s, a section was added to the copyright law which states, “importation into the United States, without the authority of the owner of the copyright under this title, of copies . . . that have been acquired outside the United States is an infringement of the exclusive right to distribute copies.” However, this must be understood in conjunction with the earlier rule which states, “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.” We will not get into the esoterica of the legal arguments here, but focus on the consequences, which could be substantial. In terms of the technical legal argument, Wiley is arguing that the “first sale doctrine” applies only to books “ lawfully made under this title,” and only books published in the U.S., they say, are governed by (“lawfully made” under) U.S. copyright law.

The Owners' Right Initiative describes the potential consequences this way: “If the Court rules in favor of Wiley, libraries may be unable to lend books, individuals could be restricted from donating items to charities, and businesses and consumers could be prevented from selling a variety of products, from electronics, to books, to jewelry, to used cars.” Could selling your used Mercedes or Toyota be a copyright violation? It's not likely a car company would place such a restriction, but book publishers certainly might and do. And, it is important to note that the limitation, if upheld, could apply to libraries lending books, and even people giving away old copies, which is why the American Library Association and Goodwill have joined in this protest.

An amicus brief filed with the court by four booksellers, Powell's Books, Strand Book Store, Half Price Books, and Harvard Book Store, points out, “the interpretation Wiley advances would have made pirates even out of our Founding Fathers. In the 1730s and 40s, Benjamin Franklin operated a book store on Main Street in Philadelphia stocked primarily with books imported from British dealers. If Franklin opened his bookstore today, on Wiley's view, virtually every sale he made would be an infringement of copyright, since each such sale would constitute distribution of books manufactured abroad.” They also note that the library at the University of Virginia would not have been able to lend the books Thomas Jefferson purchased for them without permission from each publisher. Surely, they conclude, Congress did not intend to ban this critical process in the distribution of knowledge through the copyright law.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM. <i>The Tragedie of Julius Caesar.</i> London, 1623. 1st appearance in print, Complete from the First Folio. Sold for $175,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000
  • <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Zane Grey, Inscribed photograph album depicting Grey and party at Catalina, fishing, and in Arizona. $700 to $1,000
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Eric Taverner, Salmon Fishing...London: Seeley, Service & Co., 1931. $600 to $900
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> The Gentleman Angler. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Ken Robinson, Flyfishers' Progress. [London: The Flyfishers' Club, 2000. $200 to $300
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> G. H. Lacy, North Punjab Fishing Club Angler's Handbook. Calcutta: Newman & Co., 1890. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> J. Harrington Keene, Fly-Fishing and Fly-Making for Trout, etc. New York, 1887. $200 to $300
    <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Arthur Macrate, The History of The Tuna Club, Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, California, 1948. $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Joseph D. Bates Jr. Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing. Harrisburg, PA: The Stackpole Company, 1966. $800 to $1,200
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Paul Schmookler and Ingrid V. Sils. Rare and Unusual Fly Tying Materials: A Natural History. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Herbert Hoover, Fishing For Fun - And To Wash Your Soul. New York: Random House, 1963. $400 to $600
  • <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 372: Martin Luther King Jr. March for Freedom Now! Placard. Chicago, 1960. 28 x 22”. $3,000 to $6,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 567: Warhol, Andy. Tate Gallery Exhibition Booklet, Signed on the Cover by Warhol. Tate Gallery, 1971. $700 to $900
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 72: Mitchell, Margaret. <i>Gone With the Wind.</i> New York: The Macmillan Co., 1936. First edition, first issue. $4,000 to $5,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 468: Photo Archive Documenting the 1930s—50s Chicago Jazz and Night Club Scene. A significant collection. $2,000 to $4,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 143: Dr. Seuss. <i>Oh Say Can You Say.</i> 1979, First Edition, Signed. $200 to $300
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 285: [Maps] Thomas G. Bradford. <i>A Comprehensive Atlas, Geographical, Historical & Commercial.</i> Boston: William D. Ticknor, 1835. First Edition. $1,600 to $1,800
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 69: Herman Melville. <i>Moby Dick, or The Whale</i>. New York: Random House, 1930. First Kent Trade Edition. $400 to $600
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 295: John James Audoban. Group of 148 Lithographs from the Birds of America. Philadelphia: J.T. Bowen, ca. 1840s. $600 to $800
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 54: Langston Hughes. <i>One-Way Ticket.</i> New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949. First edition. $300 to $500
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 7: Ray Bradbury. <i>The Martian Chronicles.</i> With a Wine Label Signed by Bradbury. Garden City: Doubleday, 1950. First edition $300 to $500
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 121. Frank L Baum. <i>The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.</i> Chicago: George M. Hill Co., 1899, 1900. First Edition. $4,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 369. [Declaration of Independence] Peter Force Engraving of the Declaration of Independence. One page; 29 x 26”. From the "American Archives" 1837-1853 series of books. $15,000 to $20,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>

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