Costco Wholesale Corp. v. Omega, S.A., Docket No. 08-1423 (Supreme Court 2010)
The Supreme Court announced today that it would decide the international copyright exhaustion case of Costco v. Omega. Costco purchased Omega watches from a third-party importer and sold the watch for $1,300 instead of the $2,000 suggested retail price. Omega (a division of Swatch) then sued Costco for copyright infringement – alleging that the sale violated the Swiss Company’s US Copyright covering the “Omega globe design” on the back of the watch. In a 2008 decision, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Omega, holding that the US Copyright was not exhausted because Omega had originally sold the watches to distributors in Egypt and Paraguay. This arbitrage was available because Omega sells its watches for a higher price in the US than it does elsewhere.
The question on appeal is whether Omega’s authorized foreign sale exhausted its US copyright.
Under the Copyright Act’s first-sale doctrine, 17 U.S.C. § 109(a), the owner of any particular copy “lawfully made under this title” may resell that good without the authority of the copyright holder. The closest Supreme Court precedent is Quality King Distribs., Inc. v. L’Anza Research Int’l, Inc., 523 U.S. 135, 138 (1998). In that case, the unanimous court held that the copyright was exhausted and therefore that the copyright holder could not block imports of shampoo bottles with copyrighted labels. The Ninth Circuit distinguished Quality King based on the fact that the labels were originally made in the US then shipped abroad before being re-imported. According to the Ninth Circuit, the Omega watches are not subject to the first sale doctrine because they were not “lawfully made under” the US Copyright Act.
The US Patent Laws are also subject to an exhaustion doctrine – although patent exhaustion is entirely judge-made and not subject to statutory interpretation. In Fuji Photo Film Co. v. ITC, 474 F.3d 1281 (Fed. Cir. 2007), the Federal Circuit held that US patent rights are only exhausted through a first sale “in the United States.” In that case, the Federal Circuit recognized that “a different rule applies in copyright cases.” Of course, the Supreme Court’s copyright decisions often interplay its discussion of the two intellectual property forms.
Patent holders that rely upon the current law to block parallel imports will likely want to file an amicus brief to justify a difference between the two regimes.
Thriving Resale Market: EBay argues that the Omega ruling “could have a detrimental effect on the ability of buyers and sellers of secondary-market goods to engage in commerce in the United States.”
Copyright?: Of course, Omega would be hard-pressed to claim copyright in the watch itself. Rather, the copyright claim is in the arrangement of the 8 mm OMEGA symbol and name. Although not strictly at issue here, the Supreme Court is not likely to overlook the fact that the copyright claim is an artificial construct that Omega is asserting to control downstream uses of its non-copyrighted watch that it otherwise could not control.