On Monday, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that pits a major textbook publisher against Supap Kirtsaeng, a student-entrepreneur who built a small business importing and selling textbooks.
“This case is an attempt by some brands and manufacturers to manipulate copyright law.”
Like many Supreme Court cases, though, there’s more than meets the eye. It’s not merely a question of whether the Thai-born Kirtsaeng will have to cough up his profits as a copyright infringer; the case is a long-awaited rematch between content companies seeking to knock out the “first sale” doctrine on goods made abroad (not to mention their many opponents). That makes Wiley v. Kirtsaeng the highest-stakes intellectual property case of the year, if not the decade. It’s not an exaggeration to say the outcome could affect the very notion of property ownership in the United States. Since most consumer electronics are manufactured outside the US and include copyrighted software in it, a loss for Kirtsaeng would mean copyright owners could tax, or even shut down, resales of everything from books to DVDs to cellphones.