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Copyright First Sale Doctrine Reviewed by Supreme Court


Can United States copyright owners block importation of copies of their works sold or distributed outside of the United States?

Confronting this apparently straightforward question, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on 29 October 2012, that revealed complex interactions of the relevant statutes and the difficult consequences flowing from alternative interpretations of those statutes. Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, U.S. No. 11-697.  See oral argument transcript.

The case involves Wiley text books printed and sold in Thailand, and Kirtsaeng’s unauthorized importation and resale of those text books in the United States. Wiley sued, claiming that the importation was an infringement under 17 U.S.C. 602(a), and Kirtsaeng defended that he had a right to resell the publications purchased in Thailand under the first sale doctrine codified at 17 U.S.C. 109(a).

On review is the Second Circuit’s decision for Wiley that the text books printed in Thailand could not satisfy the limitation in Section 109(a) that the first sale right applies only to copies “lawfully made under this title,” which the Court interpreted as copies physically made in this country.

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