Interesting decision out of the supreme court this week: SCOTUS has decided that items made outside the United States can be resold inside the country using the ‘first sale’ doctrine. The case involved a Thai student who resold textbooks that were first purchased overseas by relatives. Simply a case of a student selling textbooks, right? Most of us likely did that in college. Of course, most of us didn’t do it to the tune of $900,000, like Supap Kirtsaeng did. No small-timer, here.
Not so, said the copyright holder. In a move that looks to have backfired the publisher of the textbooks sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement, arguing that his selling the books online cost them potential sales. With the supreme court not buying the argument a good amount of copyright law is clarified and several people are helped or hurt.
Look, copyright law is a mess. It’s clear at this point that congress will listen to donors and try to extend copyright as far and as fast as it can, damned to the consequences to freedom of expression. That’s why this is such a (to me) good sign. Even though I’ve made my living with copyrighted items for most of my adult life, I don’t hold that it should extend forever and a day like most holders seem to. This is a first crack in the glass of the monolithic copyright laws and, with luck, will allow for more such.
But it’s probably not a happy day for firms that rely on copyrighted works for their income. I can acknowledge that. How it impacts those companies is likely to be small at this point, but now worth watching in case similar cases show up in the next ten years or so. There are also some clear winners.
The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS)
The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS) is one of the most ardent defenders of copyright and trademark laws. At this point, some of the stronger opponents of existing laws call them ‘Mickey’ laws because of the belief that they’re all about The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS) protecting content featuring their famous symbol. I don’t take it that far, but it’s clear that The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS) will do whatever it can to protect its deep catalog of intellectual property. A major loss of the control of how people use and sell Snow White and other older Disney works could significantly cost the media giant revenue.