Copyright

by Mike Masnick


Filed Under:
copyright, first sale, supreme court

Companies:
costco, omega



Supreme Court Ruling: You May Not Be Able To Legally Sell A Product First Made Outside The US

from the this-is-bad dept

Earlier this year, we covered a rather important copyright case in the Supreme Court, between watchmaker Omega and retailing giant Costco. The crux of the issue was that Costco bought a bunch of Omega watches that were not meant for sale in the US, imported them, and started selling them in the US for less than Omega was selling other watches here. Your basic principles of "you bought it, you can resell it" seemed to apply, but Omega had a nasty copyright trick up it's sleeve. It had put a little 0.5 cm "globe" design on the underside of the watches -- where no one would see it, and then claimed copyright on the design. Thus, they claimed that Costco's attempt to resell the watches was copyright infringement. Of course, US copyright law has a right of first sale (the same "you bought it, you can resell it" concept), but Omega's lawyers craftily sought out a loophole in US copyright law.

The Copyright Act's section that deals with first sale rights (section 109(a) for those playing along with the home game) notes that it only applies to copies "lawfully made under this title." Omega's lawyers argued that the design on the watches does not count because the watchers were made outside of the US, and thus not covered by US copyright law and thus the design was not lawfully made under US copyright law.

The Ninth Circuit appeals court -- which certainly has a history of wacky rulings -- agreed with Omega's interpretation of the law and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. The court deadlocked on the issue today, coming to a 4-4 tie (with Justice Kagan not taking part, since she had filed an amicus brief in the case as Solicitor General), meaning that the 9th Circuit ruling stands and copyrighted products first made outside the US may no longer have a right of first sale.

In other words, be careful if you buy a book that was first published outside the US. Technically, you may no longer have a legal right to sell it -- or even to lend it to to others, which is why librarians were reasonably worried about this decision.

If there's any sort of silver lining to all of this, the fact that the Justices deadlocked, rather than coming to a full decision means that it's not a precedential ruling and a different case could allow them to decide differently later on. Though, if you were wondering, when Kagan filed the amicus brief as Solicitor General... she sided with Omega, and said the Supreme Court should not take the case, since the 9th Circuit's ruling was just fine.

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. identicon
    bikey, 14 Dec 2010 @ 4:48am

    first sale

    This was a widespread problem in the EU before the ECJ incorporated the 'exhaustion principle' from German law in the Deutsche Grammaphone case in the 1970s. Basically, the original rights owner has the right to put his product on the market anywhere in the EU the first time, but then his/her rights are 'exhausted' to control it through the market, i.e. IP cannot be used to keep such goods out of other member states. It saved free movement of goods in EU.
    In negotiating TRIPS, the parties could not come to any agreement, so it is neutral on the subject. This is not a fluke, it is an issue that stands to destroy free movement of goods. It was dead for a while, but this will bring on a flood. As mentioned by someone above, it has the potential to stop imports altogether - nothing is free of IP and very few consumer goods are made in the US. Another own goal. Good work boys.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.