Big Decisions from the High Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has received a lot of coverage regarding the recent hearing related to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), California’s Prop 8 and the definition of marriage. With much less fanfare the Court has issued several important decisions within the past couple of weeks.

There were three “big” rulings made by the court within the last two weeks. In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court ruled the federal government can be sued when a law enforcement officer intentionally injures or harms someone. In another ruling, the Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that police cannot bring drug-sniffing police dogs onto a suspect’s property to look for evidence without first getting a warrant for a search. Justice Antonin Scalia said a person has the Fourth Amendment right to be free from the government’s gaze inside their home and in the area surrounding it, which is called the curtilage. Opponents of the decision claim, this ruling may limit how investigators use dogs’ sensitive noses to search out drugs, explosives and other items hidden from human sight, sound and smell.

The other major decision of the Court involved the “first sale doctrine” which states that a copyright holder only has the authority to control the first sale of an item. For example, if you purchase a book at a store, that is the first sale, any transaction you make with the book after that purchase can not be controlled by the copyright holder.

Before the Court issued their ruling, some people were saying that Kirtsaeng v John Wiley & Sons could set a precedent to shut-down yard sales. That claim was not based on the facts of the case. John Wiley & Sons had sued Supap Kirtsaeng because Kirtsaeng had purchased cheaper text books overseas and was selling them on his college campus. Wiley claimed this, and not the original purchase overseas, was the “first sale.”

The Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling that Kirtsaeng had not violated any law, and reversed a lower court order that Kirtsaeng pay John Wiley & Sons statutory damages of $600,000. The majority opinion written by Justice Breyer reads, in part, “we ask whether the ‘first sale’ doctrine applies to protect a buyer or otherlawful owner of a copy (of a copyrighted work) lawfully manufactured abroad. Can that buyer bring that copyinto the United States (and sell it or give it away) without obtaining permission to do so from the copyright owner? Can, for example, someone who purchases, say at a used bookstore, a book printed abroad subsequently resell it without the copyright owner’s permission?
In our view, the answers to these questions are, yes. We hold that the ‘first sale’ doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad.”

What does this mean? It means the next time you go on vacation to a foreign country and purchase something, you can then sale it at a yard sale, or on eBay without worrying whether you have “permission” to do so. It also means that libraries and second-hand stores will not be burdened with requirements to prove the items on their shelves were not purchased in a foreign market before entering the United States.