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U.S. Supreme Court Hands Defeat To Entertainment Industry Over Resale Rights

Posted by: , 12:53 AEDT, Wed March 20, 2013

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A "victory for common sense" as U.S. Supreme Court reconfirms that the First-sale Doctrine applies to foreign based copyrighted works too
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Image/Photo Credit: Mark Fischer @ Flickr, CC

The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a 6-3 ruling in favour of limiting the rights of copyright holders when it comes to the resale of foreign copyrighted works.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, confirmed that the "first-sale" doctrine applies to both domestic and foreign based copyrighted works, in a blow to both the RIAA and the MPAA, as well as game publishers, who fought to have "first-sale" exempted for foreign works. The Obama administration also sided with "Big Copyright".

The First-sale Doctrine limits the rights of copyright holders to the first sale of a copyrighted work, with subsequent sales falling out of their control. This is what allows the resale of second hand goods, and had the decision gone the other way, the activities of the likes of eBay, game stores, and even libraries, may have been put under new scrutiny.

The specific case that was heard was Supap Kirtsaeng vs John Wiley & Sons. John Wiley & Sons is a textbook maker, who sued Kirtsaeng for buying cheaper textbooks overseas and then reselling them on eBay. A New York jury initially awarded John Wiley & Sons $600,000 in damages for copyright infringement, but the case eventually ended up in the highest court of the land, and with a victory for Kirtsaeng.

Consumer right groups applauded the decision. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called it a "victory for common sense", while lobbying group Public Knowledge expressed their relieve that the decision hadn't gone the other way. "We were almost in a situation where anyone that held a garage sale or loaned a book to a friend could be in violation of copyright law," said Sherwin Siy, Public Knowledge's vice president.

As expected, the MPAA did not welcome the decision. The trade lobby group for the motion picture industry said that today's decision "will hinder American businesses' ability to compete overseas to the detriment of the long-term economic interests of the United States, and particularly its creative industries."

In addition to Justice Breyer, Justices Elena Kagan, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts were all with the majority. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia were in dissent.


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