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The US Supreme Court sided Tuesday with a former Thai student who made $90,000 reselling text books bought abroad and sparked a copyright row with a publisher.
Supap Kirtsaeng, who arrived in the United States in 1997 to study math at the University of Southern California on a scholarship, had asked his friends and family to buy the books, published by John Wiley & Sons, which were cheaper back home.
After receiving them in the mail, he resold hundreds in the United States on eBay, reimbursing his suppliers and pocketing the profit, estimated at $90,000.
John Wiley & Sons filed a complaint in 2008 alleging illegal importation and resale without the payment of exclusive distribution rights protected by copyright.
While other lower courts had sided with the publisher, imposing a $600,000 fine on Kirtsaeng, the Supreme Court did not, ruling that "the first sale doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad."
"The fact that harm has proved limited so far may simply reflect the reluctance of copyright holders to assert geographically based resale rights," it said.
This "doctrine" allows buyers of products in the United States to resell them without having to worry about copyright. In a first, the Supreme Court decided that intellectual property rights also do not apply when the first sale takes place abroad.
"Libraries do not necessarily obtain permission to circulate those books in the US; how are they to find the foreign copyright owners and obtain that permission?" said Justice Stephen Breyer in reading the decision out loud.
"Used book dealers tell us that, for similar reasons, a geographical interpretation threatens their trade," he added.