This past week, the American Supreme Court struck a victory for consumers over copyright holders. In the case of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley and Sons, the highest court ruled that if you obtain copyrighted material overseas, or from overseas, you have the right to resell it here in the states. It is another plank that strengthens the “First-Sale Doctrine” which holds that if you legally obtain or purchase a piece of copyrighted content you may dispose of it in any way you would like.
The specifics of the case, in brief, involve a scientist from Thailand, Kirtsaeng, who purchased textbooks from outside the US. After he was done with them he went to sell them on Ebay. Enter the publisher, John Wiley and Sons. They said Kirtsaeng did not have the right to resell the books in the U.S. if they were purchased outside of the United States.
The reason for mentioning it here, on an AV blog, is that the strength of the “First-Sale Doctrine” is important for all sorts of content. My real job is in the world education as a technology manager. So, the textbook part of this story really speaks to where we live. Not just in textbooks but in media content as well. There are professors who have been using the same filmstrips/vhs tapes/dvds for thirty years, and simply think they are the best teaching tools out there and don’t want to give them up; regardless of where you have to get their replacement once the originals break down.
In addition, there is the unknown of digital property. As we move into a world of online and virtual content, the tenets of the First-Sale Doctrine may begin to be assaulted by well-intentioned content creators. To be clear, those who create content have every right to receive compensation for their work and any amount of stealing should be fought. However, there is also the expectation that once you purchase something you have the right to do with it as you please. General Motors does not have the right to tell me what to do with my little run down Pontiac when I get ready to sell it. In the same manner, once I purchase a CD, virtual or physical, I should have the right to do with it as I please, as long as I am not breaking the law.
Some of the content creators have said the digital is more difficult to police. You can purchase a digital song (i.e. a file) and make multiple copies and then sell or give them away multiple times. However, what they are leaving out of the argument is the fact that as technology has progressed, so have digital policing capabilities. We have the ability to encrypt access codes, tracking code, and other safety measures to make certain that the content is only consumed by those who are the lawful owners. Would it be possible to circumvent these measures? Sure. But people who want to steal content have always been able to. I recall during the 80’s having friends who boasted the dual VCR decks. These people would rent movies from their local stores, copy the tapes, and return them. They had closets of tapes. Did they ever watch all those movies? Probably not. They stole content because they could, or for the thrill of it. The vast majority of content consumers simply want to do what is right, consume the content we purchase, and have the right to do with it what we will, within the confines of what is legal. Our rights should not be limited because of a handful of Pirate Bays.