Legal Question in Intellectual Property in Texas

I purchased a new, international edition textbook from a broker. It was shipped directly to my house. Have I broken any laws?

Asked on 8/20/14, 9:19 am

1 Answer from Attorneys

John Mitchell Interaction Law

No, assuming that the textbook was not stolen and is not an illegally made copy. For well over a century, the so-called "first sale doctrine" (codified into the Copyright Act in 1909) provided that anyone who owns a legally made copy could sell it, lend it, or give it away without the copyright owner's permission. It is an extremely important part of copyright law, because it helps make sure that textbooks, for example, can reach those unwilling or unable to pay the full price for a brand new copy. But recently, the major textbook publishers started getting into the business of selling cheaper copies in markets where few could afford the high prices charged in the U.S., while trying to make it difficult for U.S. students (who benefit from either higher incomes or better financial aid) to buy the cheaper versions. They called it "market segmentation" in court.

To make it work, they got together and started suing retailers who were purchasing the cheaper copies sold abroad (the "foreign editions") on the novel theory that the longstanding first sale doctrine did not apply to copies they made abroad. Section 109 of the current Copyright Act uses the words "lawfully made under this title" to describe the entitlement to redistribute without permission. They argued that since "this title" was the U.S. Copyright Act (title 17 of the U.S. Code), nothing made outside of the U.S. could have been made "under this title" since the Copyright Act does not apply in other countries. They succeeded in putting a number of sellers out of business until a woman in Texas, Ganghua Liu, was sued by them (in 2008) and, instead of giving up like most did, she decided to fight them. After several years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually (in 2013) agreed with her argument that the first sale doctrine applied to all copies made by the U.S. copyright owners no matter where they chose to print them. (See

So, thanks to her efforts, and those of Mr. Kirtsaeng, not only do you not break any laws by purchasing cheaper foreign editions published and sold by the textbook publishers for sale elsewhere, but the retailer or broker is also free to sell them, lend them, or give them away, just as U.S. copyright law has always intended.

Now that the Supreme Court put an end to that tactic, we are likely to see more efforts to suppress U.S. sales of these cheaper copies, such as changes to the actual text of the "foreign editions" to make it harder to use the cheaper copy as a substitute for the "U.S. edition" assigned for classes in the U.S.

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Answered on 8/20/14, 1:48 pm

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