The U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 19 that it is legal to buy cheaper foreign versions of books overseas and resell or give them away in the United States.

In the case Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, John Wiley, a major textbook publisher, sued SupapKirtsaeng, a Thai student, for importing and reselling for profit foreign-made copies of its textbooks when Kirtsaeng was a graduate student in the United States.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower court’s judgment in favor of Wiley.Kirtsaeng then appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments on his case last fall.

The Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision with a 6-to-3 ruling, upholding first-sale doctrine, which protects the buyers of copyrighted works, even if those works were manufactured in countries outside the United States.

The decision is considered a major victory for libraries, while it will be to the detriment of publishers.
“The Court’s decision ensures that libraries can rely on the critically important principle of first sale to continue lending the estimated 200 million foreign-made volumes in our collections,” said the Association of Research Libraries in a press release. “Libraries and our allies remain vigilant in defense of first sale and all of the rights that make it possible to serve our communities.”

Although the Georgetown University Library does not purchase textbooks, the Court’s decision is still significant for Georgetown students, according to Stephanie Hughes, executive assistant to the university librarian and communications coordinator for Lauinger Library.

“The most important part of this decision for libraries is that we will continue to be able to buy and share, including through Interlibrary Loan and consortial arrangements, materials as we always have, regardless of place of publication,” Hughes said.

According to Artemis Kirk, Georgetown’s university librarian, Lauinger will continue to provide its services for collections acquisitions and sharing — locally, nationally and internationally.

“I am very pleased with the decision because it means that libraries worldwide can purchase any edition, published anywhere, of an item and legitimately share it through our well-established lending and interlibrary loan practices,” Kirk said. “In this way, libraries will continue to advance the creation of knowledge by freely sharing the existing knowledge we’ve purchased with our user communities.”

Publishers, in contrast, are reeling from the decision. According to the American Association of Publishers, the ruling will deprive authors of their rightful compensation, threaten the survival of publishers and ultimately shift the burden of cost onto legitimate book buyers. The AAP classifies foreign-made textbooks as “grey-market goods” — those that are unregulated and not authorized by the goods’ manufacturer or producer.

“We are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided in favor of Supap Kirtsaeng and overturned the Second Circuit’s ruling,” Stephen M. Smith, Wiley’s president and CEO, said in a press release. “It is a loss for the U.S. economy and [for] students and authors in the U.S. and around the world.”

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