Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2013 Issue

Booksellers Win Right to Resell Secondhand Books in U.S. Supreme Court Decision

Scseal

Seal of the Supreme Court.

In a major case that pitted used book sellers, libraries, museums and other retailers against book publishers, the U.S. Supreme Court came down squarely on the booksellers' side. The Court ruled that publishers may not use copyright law to prevent the owners of used books published abroad from reselling, loaning, or giving them away. You may not have realized this was even an issue, but had the lower court rulings been upheld, you might have found yourself on the losing end of a lawsuit for such behavior. No wonder such organizations as Powell's Books and the American Library Association banded together to fight this case all the way to the Supreme Court. It took an unusual coalition of Supreme Court justices, three liberals and three conservatives, to win this decision 6-3 for the booksellers and their allies.

Technically, the winner in this case was one Supap Kirtsaeng. Kirtsaeng was a student from Thailand who came to America to study at Cornell. When he went to purchase his schoolbooks, he noticed they were much more expensive in America than in Thailand. He also realized that the books were essentially the same. Kirtsaeng had good business instincts. He called the folks back home in Thailand and asked them to buy a bunch of textbooks and ship them to him. Kirtsaeng then put them up for sale, saving his student customers a bundle while making a nice profit for himself.

Publisher John Wiley and Sons was not amused. Their Thai books are stamped with a copyright notice that says they may not be exported to nations such as America. They sued Kirtsaeng.

Wiley publishes editions of its textbooks in Thailand and sells them much cheaper there. The average Thai student evidently is not as well off financially as the typical American, at least that's what Wiley believes. They realized they could sell for substantially higher prices in America. Wiley's actions can be interpreted in two ways. Wiley argues that what it is doing is making affordable instruction available to young people in poorer countries who otherwise would never get the chance to lift themselves up. This is altruism in action. They explained the cheap pricing is only possible because the costs of producing the books (other than printing) are covered by sales in America. American students, however, may have interpreted Wiley's actions as more akin to price gouging. Either way, motivation was not the issue that motivated the Supreme Court's decision. For the Court, it came down to a question of law.

The reason you can resell your used books, even though they are copyrighted by the publisher, is something called the “first sale” doctrine. This doctrine says that once the first sale has been made legally under the copyright law, the next owners are free to sell those goods indefinitely, regardless of copyright claims. So, you cannot copy a copyrighted item and sell it. That is not legal under copyright law. But, if the copyright holder sells you a book, you can resell your legally purchased copy. The publisher cannot place a notice in the book saying the purchaser may not resell his copy. Once he has purchased it, he may do as he pleases.

And yet, the contrary is exactly what Wiley printed in their books. At least, their notice limited where the used copies could be sold, in contradiction to the “first sale” doctrine that says purchasers may do as they please with the books they buy. Wiley's noticed stated, “This book is authorized for sale in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East only and may be not exported out of these territories.” However, Kirtsaeng did precisely what this warning claimed to prohibit. He exported the books out of those territories and resold them in America.

Wiley won its suit, both in the trial and in its appeal to the second highest court in the land. Kirtsaeng, who reportedly made around $100,000 selling the books, was assessed damages of $600,000. He appealed to the Supreme Court.

The case turned on something of a legal technicality in the wording of the statute. At least that's what the decision says. Sometimes, I think, courts first figure out what they think is right, and then fit the law to reach the “right” verdict. The key factor in this case was whether the word “under” in the statute implied a geographical or non-geographical meaning. Non-legal minds might think this legalistic nitpicking, but all of those booksellers and librarians, and Mr. Kirtsaeng, who just saved $600,000, are breathing a sigh of relief. Here's how the ruling went down.

As noted, the “first sale” doctrine allows a buyer to resell his books and other merchandise legally purchased as he sees fit. However, that doctrine applies only to goods “lawfully made under this title” (U.S. copyright law). Wiley argued a geographical meaning to the terminology “under this title.” Books published under U.S. copyright law, the publisher argued, are books published in America. Books published in Thailand are not published “under” American copyright law, they said. American law has a geographical limitation. It applies to America. Therefore, they concluded, the “first sale” doctrine of American law does not apply to books printed somewhere else.

This argument led to all kinds of conniptions from booksellers, librarians, and resellers of other affected products, such as records and high-tech gadgets. Did this mean they would have to track down the manufacturer of everything produced overseas and ask for permission to sell their used copy? The American Library Association asked whether their members would need to seek publisher permission to loan the estimated 200 million foreign published books in their possession. Powell's stated that used book dealers have assumed for centuries the “first sale” doctrine applied to the books they sold. The bookseller argued, “Used-book dealers tell us that, from the time when Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson built commercial and personal libraries of foreign books, American readers have bought used books published and printed abroad.” Were Franklin and Jefferson involved illegal trade?

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts<br>Including Americana<br>Live and Online<br>June 23, 2020</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> [SUPREME COURT JUSTICES]. A very extensive collection of 203 letters, documents and signatures. A COMPLETE COLLECTION OF THE SUPREME COURT JUSTICES, JOHN JAY THROUGH WILLIAM REHNQUIST. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> ZATTA, Antonio. <i>Atlante Novissimo.</i> Venice: Antonio Zatta, 1775-1785. ONE OF THE FINEST WORLD ATLASES issued in Italy in the 18th century. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> [CHICAGO HISTORY] -- [COLUMBUS, Christopher]. Monumental historiated and embroidered panel of the MADE FOR THE 1893 COLUMBIAN EXHIBITION IN CHICAGO. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts<br>Including Americana<br>Live and Online<br>June 23, 2020</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> [MONASTERY HILL BINDING]. AINSWORTH, William Harrison. <i>Historical Romances.</i> Philadelphia, n.d. A fine early exhibition binding by the Monastery Hill Bindery. $6,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> [ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM]. New York: Tiber Press, [1960]. 4 volumes. LIMITED EDITION, number 119 of 200 COPIES, EACH SIGNED BY THE POET AND ARTIST. $6,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> GRATIANUS, the Canonist. <i>Decretum.</i> Venedig: Petrus de Plasiis, 25 January 1483. Second quarto edition. FIRST PAGE ILLUMINATED BY A CONTEMPORARY ARTIST. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts<br>Including Americana<br>Live and Online<br>June 23, 2020</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> [ABOLITIONISTS]. <i>William Lloyd Garrison. The Story of his Life.</i> New York, 1885. ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS FROM SEVERAL NOTABLE ABOLITIONISTS neatly bound in throughout. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> ANSON, George. <i>A Voyage round the World, In the Years 1740... 1744.</i> London: John and Paul Knapton for the author, 1748. FIRST EDITION. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> Blank railroad ledger, "Compagnie des Chemins de fer de l'Ouest" (spine title). N.p., 1909. A MONUMENTAL 20th-CENTURY ART NOUVEAU BINDING. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts<br>Including Americana<br>Live and Online<br>June 23, 2020</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> [MINIATURE ROOM] -- [FLEMING, John (1910-1987)]. Miniature of his 57th Street Library and Gallery. JOHN F. FLEMING'S BARONIAL 57TH STREET GALLERY. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> [SANGORSKI & SUTCLIFFE BINDING]. CHESTERTON, G.K. <i>Five Types: A Book of Essays.</i> London, 1910. LIMITED EDITION, number 3 of 30 copies on vellum SIGNED BY GEORGE SUTCLIFFE. $400 to $500.
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Jun. 23:</b> [KELMSCOTT PRESS]. <i>When Adam Delved and Eve Span....</i> [Ancoats Brotherhood, 1894-5]. LIMITED EDITION, one of 250 copies printed. $500 to $700.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States, pamphlet, 1862. Sold May 7 for $11,875.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. Sold May 7 for $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> E. Simms Campbell, A Night-Club Map of Harlem, in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. Sold May 7 for $27,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. Sold May 7 for $17,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. Sold May 7 for $5,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> The Black Panther: Black Community News Service, 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. Sold May 7 for $6,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike, silver print, 1968. Sold May 7 for $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> March For Freedom Now!, poster for a protest on the 1960 Republican Convention. Sold May 7 for $17,500.
  • <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
    <center><b>ABAA Virtual Book Fair</b><br>Join your favorite booksellers<br>June 4-7, 2020
  • <b>Koller International Auctions: Books [and] Manuscripts & Autographs. June 15, 2020</b>
    <b>Koller, Jun. 15:</b> INCUNABULA -Fridolin, Stephan. <i>Schatzbehalter.</i> With 96 (including 5 repeated) full-page text woodcuts. Nürnberg, 1491.<br>€ 39 470 / 57 020
    <b>Koller, Jun. 15:</b> Kokoschka, Oskar. <i>Die Träumenden Knaben (The Dreaming Boys).</i> With 11 original lithographs. Vienne, 1908.<br>€ 35 090 / 52 630
    <b>Koller, Jun. 15:</b> Third Bessarion Master (active in Lombard in the third quarter of the 15th century). Leaf from a gradual, 1455-60.<br>€ 21 930 / 30 700
    <b>Koller, Jun. 15:</b> Picasso, Pablo - Delgado, José alias Pepe Illo. <i>La Tauromaquia o arte de torear.</i> With 26 original aquatints and 1 original etching by Picasso.<br>€ 21 930 / 35 090
    <b>Koller International Auctions: Books [and] Manuscripts & Autographs. June 15, 2020</b>
    <b>Koller, Jun. 15:</b> Linschoten, Jan Huygen van. <i>Itinerario, Voyage ofte Schipvaert naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien…</i> Amsterdam, 1595.<br>€ 17 540 / 26 320
    <b>Koller, Jun. 15:</b> CHILDREN’S BOOKS - Meggendorfer, Lothar. <i>Nah und Fern. Ein Tierbilderbuch zum Ziehen.</i> With 8 coloured, lithographed plates.<br>€ 530 / 790
    <b>Koller, Jun. 15:</b> DANSE MACABRE - Bille, Edmond. <i>Une Danse macabre.</i> With 20 coloured woodcuts. Lausanne, 1919. Large folio.<br>€ 610 / 880
    <b>Koller, Jun. 15:</b> Dexel, Walter. A collection of 7 invitation cards from the Kunstverein Jena, each typographically designed by W. Dexel. Jena, 1924-1928. Each 10.5 x 14.8 cm.<br>€ 530 / 790
  • <b>Gonnelli:</b> Books & Graphics 26th – 27th – 28th May 2020.
    <b>Gonnelli:</b> May 27th, Travel and exploration.
    <b>Gonnelli:</b> May 27th, Musical books, autographs & printed music.
    <b>Gonnelli:</b> May 26th, A collection of Piranesi’s etchings. € 50 to € 16000.
    <b>Gonnelli:</b> May 28th, Books from XV to XX Century.
    <b>Gonnelli:</b> May 28th, Hansel and Gretel and other stories by the brothers Grimm illustrated by Kay Nielsen. € 1000.
    <b>Gonnelli:</b> May 28th, Artists’ books from Dalì, Marini & others.

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