By Professor Ryan Vacca
Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Costco Wholesale Corporation v. Omega, S.A., to determine whether copyrighted works first sold in Switzerland and then imported into the U.S. infringed the copyright owner's right of distribution or whether the first sale doctrine (aka the exhaustion doctrine) applied to make the importation non-infringing.
The facts are fairly straightforward. Omega is a watch company that manufactures watches in Switzerland. Omega owns a copyright in a small visual image that is laser-engraved onto each Swiss-manufactured watch. Costco, a U.S. warehouse retailer, acquired genuine Omega watches from a third party, who had purchased them from an authorized Omega distributor abroad. Costco subsequently sold these watches in the United States. Omega alleged that Costco's sale of these watches infringed its exclusive right to distribute copies of its copyrighted work under § 106(3) of the Copyright Act because § 602(a)(1) provides that:
Importation into the United States, without the authority of the owner of the copyright under this title, of copies … of a work that have been acquired outside the United States is an infringement of the exclusive right to distribute copies … under section 106.
Costco argued that its sales in the U.S. were non-infringing under the exhaustion doctrine codified in § 109, which provides:
Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106(3), the owner of a particular copy … lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy.
Costco argues that goods manufactured abroad can still fall within this phrase whereas Omega argues that goods manufactured abroad are not "made under this title" unless the goods are made or sold with permission from the copyright owner to import the goods into the United States. At oral argument, the Justices quickly pointed out the difficulties in these two interpretations on both a textual and policy level.
In contrast to the formidable task before the Court in the copyright context, patent law takes a relatively easier approach to the international exhaustion issue. The seminal Supreme Court case on international exhaustion under patent law is Boesch v. Graff, 133 U.S. 697 (1890). In Boesch, the plaintiffs held a U.S. patent and German patent for an improvement to lamp burners. The defendants purchased burners in Germany from Mr. Hecht, who was authorized to make these burners in Germany because of Germany's prior user defense (Hecht was not authorized by the patentees). When the defendants imported these burners into the U.S., the patentees sued for infringement. The defendants argued that their legal purchase in Germany from Mr. Hecht permitted them to import and sell them in the United States. The Court disagreed and held that although Mr. Hecht had a right to make and sell the burners in Germany under German patent law, this had no effect on the U.S. patentee's ability to enforce its U.S. patent in the United States.
Over a century later, the issue of international patent exhaustion arose again in Jazz Photo v. ITC, 264 F.3d 1094 (Fed. Cir. 2001) and Fuji Photo Film v. Jazz Photo, 394 F.3d 1368 (2005), where the Federal Circuit reaffirmed the Supreme Court's holding in Boesch and clarified that the exhaustion doctrine would not apply even if the U.S. patentee or its licensees authorized the first sale abroad. In other words, even if the U.S. patentee permitted the first sale in a foreign country, a subsequent attempt to import such an item into the U.S. would still constitute infringement. In support of its holding, the Federal Circuit noted that the U.S. patentee's "foreign sales can never occur under a United States patent because the United States patent system does not provide for extraterritorial effect."
Based on the dialogue between the Justices and the attorneys in Costco, it appears that the Court may be uncomfortable limiting the exhaustion doctrine in the copyright context solely to situations where the first sale took place within the United States. They seem to be struggling to articulate a standard that allows some foreign sales to take advantage of the exhaustion doctrine while giving the phrase "lawfully made under this title" some meaning.
If, in the end, the rule announced by the Court in Costco differs from the holdings in Boesch and Jazz Photo, then what effect may this have on the future of patent law's exhaustion doctrine? Of course, the Court could maintain a dual approach, where copyright exhaustion and patent exhaustion are treated differently. However, if presented with an international patent exhaustion case, the Court could rely on its Costco holding and try to align the copyright and patent rules. We have seen the Court take this approach recently in MGM Studios v. Grokster, 545 U.S. 913 (2005), when it created a new theory of secondary liability in copyright law (the inducement theory) by relying, in large part, on patent law's recognition of this theory via statute in § 271(a) of the Patent Act.
Another possibility for harmonization of copyright and patent law is that the Court takes its cue from patent law and hold that exhaustion in the copyright context only applies when the copyrighted works were first sold or otherwise distributed in the United States. If this disrupts the policy concerns underlying the exhaustion doctrine, then Congress can always step in to resolve this issue.