By Dennis Crouch
Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (Supreme Court 2012)
The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in another international copyright exhaustion case. Previously, in Omega v. Costco, the court stalled in a 4-4 tie and left the case without an opinion. Copyright exhaustion – also known as the “first sale doctrine” – is codified under 17 U.S.C. § 109(a) and allows the holder of a copy of a work “lawfully made under this title” to sell or otherwise dispose of the copy without the copyright holder’s permission. Without this doctrine, such a sale could be considered a violation of the copyright holder’s exclusive distribution rights under section 106(3). The question in this case is whether the exhaustion doctrine applies to authorized copies manufactured outside of the US and then imported. Copyright holders argue that exhaustion does not apply because the foreign copies were not “lawfully made under this title,” but instead were lawfully made in a region not subject to US copyright law. A win for the copyright holders would support a system of price discrimination that would allow a rights-holder to block third-party imports of legitimate (non-counterfeit) products into the US. The rule would also tend to encourage foreign manufacture.
The question presented:
How do Section 602(a)(1) of the Copyright Act, which prohibits the importation of a work without the authority of the copyright’s owner, and Section 109(a) of the Copyright Act, which allows the owner of a copy “lawfully made under this title” to sell or otherwise dispose of the copy without the copyright owner’s permission, apply to a copy that was made and legally acquired abroad and then imported into the United States?
The case is expected to be argued this fall.
Exclusive Rights of Importation: The particular facts of the case are interesting. John Wiley sells textbooks at a reduced rate in Thailand. Kirtsaeng imported eight Wiley books and resold them in the US. Although Wiley had profited from the original sale in Thailand, the company argued that the importation also violated US law because the foreign sale did not exhaust the copyright and that, therefore, Wiley maintained exclusive rights of importation and distribution. A jury awarded Wiley statutory damages of $75,000 per copy for a total of $600,000 for the eight books. The Second Circuit affirmed that judgment.
Patent Law: Patent law’s exhaustion doctrine is not based upon a statute but does run roughly parallel to the copyright law as outlined above. In the Jazz Photo cases, the Federal Circuit ruled that international sale does not exhaust US patent rights. If the Supreme Court reverses in Kirtsaeng, this will likely be seen as an implicit reversal of Jazz Photo and its progeny. Thus, the case will obviously impact patent law. The AIPLA filed a brief in support of the petition – focusing on the need for resolving the circuit split.
John Wiley’s cases are still pending against various patent law firms for failing to obtain a license to make copies of prior art documents before making copies and submitting those to the USPTO as required by law. The defendant law firms are expected to file their answers later this month.