Technology can be expensive, so many of us get some of the funds we need to upgrade to the latest gadgets by selling on our old bits of technology. On the face of it, the idea of something so commonplace being illegal sounds farcical. When you buy a product, whether it be an iPod or some Mustang fuel tanks, you own it, and if you don’t want it any more, what’s wrong with selling it? That’s something that the Supreme Court will soon be considering.
The First Sale Doctrine and Copyright
The issue is to do with copyright. Since 1908 the Supreme Court has held that something called “the first sale doctrine” applies to products. In a nutshell, that means that once a product has been sold once, the buyer can do what they like with that individual item – sell it, smash it, or give it away. This applies only to that single product though – what you cannot do is copy it and sell those copies.
Many products have copyright logos on them, from iPods and laptops to American racing headers and timing belts. The Copyright Act of 1976 sets out the various legal protections for copyright holders.
Where the current argument is coming from is one particular aspect of that Act that discusses the copyright holder’s right to control importation of products into the US. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled on one aspect of this issue, and held that as long as the product was manufactured in the US and then sold in the US, the first sale doctrine still applies.
What’s the Problem?
A recent court case was heard in the 2nd circuit that concerned textbooks. Often, the same textbooks are sold in the US and abroad, with different regions having different prices according to local market demands. The plaintiff in this case had his relatives purchase textbooks abroad and then send them to him in the US. This is all perfectly legal.
However, he then sold these books on eBay for less than the US price, but for more than his relatives had paid for them. The 2nd Circuit court held that, as the product was manufactured outside of the USA, the first sale doctrine did not apply and so the permission of the copyright holder was required in order to resell the product.
Almost everyone is aware of the outsourcing of American manufacturing overseas. If the Supreme Court upholds this decision, then getting permission to sell many products may become necessary – and if different components have copyrights held by different companies that could be very tricky indeed. At least this decision might give an added incentive to buying American!
Carl contributed this guest post. Passionate about technology, he likes writing about everything from American racing headers to second-hand bargains on gadgets.