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With copyright law element at issue, eBay watches Supreme Court case closely

eBay, one of California's first success stories in the tech realm, will be watching a Supreme Court case that begins Oct. 29 very closely.

And so will we.

The case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, might complicate what is known as the First Sale Doctrine. Since 1908, our intellectual property system has recognized that a copyright holder controls only the first sale of a copyrighted work. After you purchase a DVD, for example, you can give it away, resell it (on eBay, for example) or destroy it. You have no control over the underlying copyrighted work, which is why you can't copy the DVD and sell those copies, but the individual physical work is yours to do with as you please.

Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, though, asks whether the First Sale Doctrine applies to items manufactured outside if the U.S. It was filed by John Wiley & Sons, a publisher of textbooks, after it learned that Kirtsaeng, a Thai student studying at Columbia, was buying his books abroad, where they were cheaper, and was reselling them on the Internet.

Companies like eBay and Goodwill are watching this case with great interest because it potentially affects the right of third parties (i.e. them) to resell copyrighted work. The American Library Association and the Association of Research Libraries have spoken out against John Wiley & Sons because they are worried that any changes made to the First Sale Doctrine will impact their ability to loan out copyrighted books, DVDs and other materials.

Now, going forward, we shouldn't automatically presume that big changes are afoot. Even so, Oct. 29 will be the start of something interesting.

Source: Library Journal, "Library Associations Brace for First Sale Fight with Owners' Rights Lobby Effort," Meredith Schwartz, Oct. 23, 2012

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