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Supreme Court Hears Textbook Resale Case

Ruling expected by June, could impact many online sellers.

Can someone buy an item overseas, import it and resell it without getting permission from the copyright owner?

That’s the question the Supreme Court pondered on Monday as it heard arguments for and against the matter of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons. The case has captured the attention of eBay, Google, Costco, and several other big retailers and organizations because of its far-reaching implications for commerce.

The case involves a graduate student and eBay seller, Supap Kirtsaeng, who sold textbooks on eBay to pay for his tuition. Publisher John Wiley & Sons sued Kirtsaeng for selling the books without its permission. According to reports, Kirtsaeng sold copies of eight Wiley textbooks that Kirtsaeng’s family bought in Thailand, Kirtsaeng’s home country, and sent to him in the U.S. for resale.

In an earlier decision, a New York court sided with the publisher, awarding damages since the items were made abroad. Now Kirtsaeng is appealing the case, saying the publisher lost the right to control the sale of the books when Kirtsaeng’s family bought the textbooks.

Do owners’ rights apply to imported goods?

The case could have implications for resellers who buy items legally abroad, import them and resell them in the States

According to Section 109(a) of the Copyright Act, if someone buys a copyrighted work, he or she can resell the item without the permission of the copyright owner.

eBay, Google, Costco, Goodwill and the American Library Association side with the student, noting that the case could have implications on other resellers who buy items legally abroad, import them and resell them in the States.

eBay’s Main Street blog notes, “We here at eBay Main Street believe wholeheartedly in the Owners’ Rights Initiative’s message: that if you bought it, you own it.”

However, music executives and movie makers side with the publisher, saying copies that were made abroad and then imported to the U.S. for resale may undercut their profits.

A ruling is expected by June, according to news reports.

The Supreme Court heard a similar case in 2010 when Costco and Omega, a Swiss watch maker, went to court over the same issue. In that case, the Supreme Court split 4-4, according to news reports.

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About the author

Olga Munoz
Olga Munoz is editor of In addition to writing news and feature articles about e-commerce, selling trends, online marketing and other topics of interest to online sellers, Olga manages the site's social media efforts. A journalism graduate of Chico State, Olga says her favorite part of being a journalist is learning interesting facts that help put stories into perspective, attending industry events and meeting interesting people "that leave you smiling, even in tough situations." Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

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