Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Publishing just got (more) complicated

The Supreme Court, in a rather far-reaching ruling on copyright law, just gave foreign buyers of things like books and movies the right to resell them in the United States without the permission of the copyright owner. The 6-3 decision involved a USC student from Thailand that figured out that he could make money by purchasing textbooks at lower costs in Thailand and re-selling them in the United States. The ruling also featured a dissent by Ginsburg, Kennedy and Scalia. (Yea, you read that right.)

From the Washington Post:

"Had the court come out the other way, it would have crimped the sale of many goods sold online and in discount stores, and it would have complicated the tasks of museums and libraries that contain works produced outside the United States, Breyer said. Retailers told the court that more than $2.3 trillion worth of foreign goods were imported in 2011, and that many of these goods were bought after they were first sold abroad, he said."

What should authors take away from this ruling?

Well, it's a bit to early to tell, but here is one of a few possible scenarios bouncing around in my head. Let's say that you are a disgruntled traditionally published author. What if you were to sell the English print rights to one of your books in, say, India.  Now, lets say that the terms of that deal ensure that those books will cost only a quarter of what they do in the US. Could you then re-import and sell your "India Edition" books in the US and undercut your own US publisher?

Think I'm going crazy?

Well, check out Courtney Milan's post on some of the many unanticipated impacts the rulings might have on the fiction market. Until the legal dust settles, my advice would be to not sign any global rights deals or non-compete clauses. We are living in some crazy freakin' times.



Nate W said...

I think the ruling may be too broad. I think that dealing with college textbooks publishers have been taking advantage of students in america why should a book ever cost more than $200 per copy when it is being sold for a fraction of the american price in other countries. If college books really were worth as much as they are sold new you would expect that they would hold a decent resale value outside of a campus bookstore.
As far as regular fiction books I agree that this could be a problem... but most fiction books sell for less than $10 and not grossly taking advantage of consumers.

david kulligan said...

I’m not a lawyer, so perhaps I’m quite off-base here, but…it seems to me that the student bringing textbooks to the US never signed a contract with Wiley, but an author who sold first NA rights to a publisher did sign a contract with Oilfield equipment… Wouldn’t a typical contract have some verbiage which could be taken to mean the author couldn’t do this? (Or at least twisted to imply it? I mean, look how twisty Wiley was in its interpretation above!) And the first to be caught doing so would certainly be sued….

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