One of the worst parts of attending an institute of higher learning, whether for undergraduate studies or law school, is being forced to purchase overpriced textbooks that in all likelihood you will never need or open.

A cottage industry has sprouted up for people trying to find ways to let students pay less for the costly laptop stands. These days, students can take advantage of local used bookstores, Amazon or eBay, and in some cases, their iPads.

Earlier today, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case regarding the legality of one unexpectedly common way to make a little cash, and still sell affordable-ish books: buy that s**t abroad for cheap, bring the books back to the U.S., and sell them online for normal American prices.

Unsurprisingly, publishers are not excited about this emerging “gray market.” That’s where SCOTUS comes in….

The Washington Post explains Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons:

The justices said they will hear an appeal from a Thai student doing graduate work in the United States who tried to make ends meet by re-selling textbooks that family and friends first purchased abroad. A jury awarded textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons $600,000 after deciding that math graduate student Supap Kirtsaeng infringed on the company’s copyrights.

The issue at the Supreme Court is whether U.S. copyright protection applies to items that are made abroad, purchased abroad and then resold in the U.S. without the permission of the manufacturer. The high court split 4-4 when it tried to answer that question in a case in 2010 involving Costco and Swiss watch maker Omega.

Justice Kagan recused herself last time, which led to the tie. This time, she will be participating.

Here is the petition for cert in Kirtsaeng. (Gavel bang: SCOTUSblog.)

Here are more specifics on the case, from the Post:

Kirtsaeng returned to Thailand in 2010 after doing graduate work at the University of Southern California, said his lawyer, Joshua Rosenkranz. Earlier, he received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

While at USC, Kirtsaeng arranged for family and friends living abroad to purchase textbooks and ship them to him. He resold the copies on eBay. Eight textbooks sold by Kirtsaeng were published by Wiley’s Asian subsidiary. The company sued the student in federal court in New York.

This is an important issue, in that it affects a lot of people. Whether they know or not, a lot of people purchase gray market products facilitated by websites like Amazon or eBay. The Post says there is an estimated $63 billion annual market “for goods that are purchased abroad, then imported and resold without the permission of the manufacturer.”

Bloomberg says the case “promises to be one of the top business and consumer cases,” for the court’s next term, which starts in October.

Everyone always talks about how far the law lags behind technology, so it will be interesting to see who comes out on top here: technological innovation or publishing conglomerates with outdated business models. My hope is on the former; my money, not so sure.

Orders: One new grant, on copyright [SCOTUSblog]
Discounted ‘Gray Market’ Goods Draw Top U.S. Court Review [Bloomberg]
Thai student’s money-making effort at center of Supreme Court copyright case [Washington Post]


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