One of the questions in Impression Prods., Inc. v. Lexmark Int’l, Inc., on which the Supreme Court recently heard oral argument (March 21), is whether the authorized and foreign first sale of a patented item exhausts a U.S. patent holder’s use and distribution rights. The Patent Act of 1952 contains no pertinent provisions on the effect of the first sale of a patented article, and as a consequence many observers believe that the common law will be especially important in deciding the question. The Petitioner, Impression Products, has gone so far as to argue that the common-law backdrop is dispositive. If the Court agrees and decides that the common law should control or influence the case, then assessing the content of that common law becomes paramount.
So what is the common-law rule? In Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., a copyright case, the Court stated that the first-sale doctrine was a “common-law doctrine with an impeccable historic pedigree” that reached as far back as the 17th century and that made “no geographical distinctions.” In reaching that conclusion, the Court relied in large part on English law, particularly Sir Edward Coke’s 1628 treatise in which he rejected post-sale restraints on the alienation of ordinary chattels. Although Coke was not speaking of chattels encumbered by copyrights or patents, let alone goods made and first sold in a different country, the Court nevertheless stated that this no-restraint principle applied to chattels embodying copyrighted works. Notably, the Court offered no other support for its historical account of the common law, apart from citing its 1908 decision in Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus—which treated national (rather than international) copyright exhaustion.
Not surprisingly, Impression Products refers to Coke repeatedly in its brief, as do many amici who have submitted supporting briefs. And at the oral argument last week, Impression Products began by stating that the “principle goes back, of course, to the 15th century.” It also ended its argument by referring to Coke. But more importantly, as Dennis notes in his recent post recapping the oral argument, Justice Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion in Kirtsaeng, seems very much inclined to continue relying on Coke’s account of English common law. Justice Breyer referred to Coke many times and stated, for example, that a patent rule rejecting mandatory international exhaustion would be “very much contrary to what 300 years of restraints on alienation [doctrine] ha[d] in mind.”
In an article posted on SSRN, I examine and reject the Court’s historical account of English common law. Although Kirtsaeng gave the distinct impression that no early cases in England had ever ruled against gray-market importation in an intangible rights case, this is not so in fact. My article discusses two English cases and a few Scottish ones, decided in the long 18th century, and which have thus far escaped the attention of practitioners and scholars. Some of the cases are reported in print, but not all of them appear in traditional law reports, and some of the records only survive in manuscript. I have posted images of the most important manuscripts and less accessible print sources online. The cases demonstrate that the common law did not recognize international exhaustion. On the contrary, the common law observed foreign legal boundaries and permitted right owners and their licensees to stop gray-market goods that embodied intangible rights.
One of the English cases was decided in the Court of Chancery in 1716–1722, and the other in the Chancery and House of Lords in 1802–1804. Both involved patents for the exclusive right of printing, selling, and importing the Holy Bible, New Testament, and Book of Common Prayer. The King held prerogative copyrights in these works and had licensed them by letters patent separately in England and Scotland. At the request of the English licensees, the courts ruled against London booksellers who had imported books printed and sold by the Scottish licensees. Despite the union of the two countries in 1707, the Chancery and House of Lords viewed Scotland as a foreign country for the purpose of prerogative copyrights because the rights granted in the two countries were territorial, legally separate, and potentially distinct. Outside of English common law, a case decided in the Court of Session in Scotland and then in the House of Lords in 1828, extended the proposition to books traveling in the other direction—from England to Scotland.
Notably, these cases considered many of the same arguments that Lexmark and Kirtsaeng raise, such as the territoriality of patent rights; free trade among countries; the potential benefit to consumers of competition from imported gray-market goods; the potential harm to consumers who purchase goods in one country without any notice of their inability to bring those goods into another country; and the potential negative effect that gray-market imports could have on a domestic licensee.
So what do these cases mean for international patent and copyright exhaustion in the United States?
Two consequences follow. First, they call into question the Supreme Court’s decision in Kirtsaeng. Neither the parties nor the Court were aware of these cases and thus the decision issued on an incomplete record of the common law. Second, and most obviously, these newly revealed cases could have an even greater impact in Lexmark. If the Court or any of its members choose to rely on English common law once more—whether presented as controlling, persuasive, or simply historical narrative—that consultation must now occur with a different view of the common law in mind.
= = = = =
 Brief for Petitioner at 10–11, 44–47 (Jan. 17, 2017); Reply Brief for Petitioner at 2–3, 16–17 (Mar. 14, 2017).
 133 S. Ct. 1351, 1363 (2013).
 Id. at 1363 (citing Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus, 210 U.S. 339 (1908)).
 Brief for Petitioner at 10, 13, 42, 45–46 (Jan. 17, 2017).
 E.g., Brief of Public Knowledge et al. at 5, 9, 13–14 (Jan. 23, 2017); Brief of Costco Wholesale Corp. et al. at 20–21, 33–34 (Jan. 24, 2017); Brief for HTC Corp. et al. at 12, 17 (Jan. 24, 2017); Brief of the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors at 36 (Jan. 24, 2017); Brief of Auto Car Association et al. at 21 (Jan. 24, 2017); Brief of Intellectual Property Professors et al. at 6, 26–27 (Jan. 24, 2017).
 Oral Argument Transcript at 3 (Mar. 21, 2017).
 Id. at 53.
 Id. at 14, 26, 28, 33–34, 36.
 Id. at 28; see also id. at 26.