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Those Garage Sales

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If We Buy It Do We Really Own It?

By James Donahue

With the U. S. Supreme Court making rules strongly favoring big corporate interests a lot of Americans should be concerned about a case still pending before that judicial panel . . . Citizens For Ownership Rights.

That case, called Kirtsaeng V. John Wiley & Sons, involves Supap Kirtsaeng, a University of Southern California student who earned money for college by purchasing discounted textbooks abroad and sold them on line for less than the college bookstores were charging. Kirtsaeng was sued by the book publisher who claimed that copyright laws prohibited him from doing what he was doing. The courts ruled that because the books were manufactured abroad, he was in violation of the U.S. copyright law. The publisher, John Wiley & Sons, was awarded $600,000 in damages.

The case is now going before the Supreme Court.

Why should we be concerned?

The problem is that most of the goods we buy in American stores today are manufactured on foreign shores. If we buy a coat in WalMart, chances are good it was made in China. If we later wish to sell that coat at a garage sale in our front yard, or on E-Bay, the ruling against Kirtsaeng could come into play.

It is clear here that the people’s property rights are under attack and in need of protection. Those property rights state that consumers who purchase legitimate goods are assured that these goods can be resold, given away and used in any manner we see fit. Once we buy it, we own it.

Who can imagine a corporate challenge to this basic rule to our way of life? Imagine what a court ruling against Kirtsaeng might have on Internet sales, on flea markets and garage sales across the land? The classified ad page on our local newspapers would disappear. The purchase and trade of used goods would suddenly become an illegal act.

We thought we had this question settled a century ago. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the people’s right to control their own property in 1908, and that right was codified in the Copyright Act in 1976. We have always owned the stuff we buy. Who would even question this?

So here is the looming scenario. A victory for copyright extremists in the Kirtsaeng case would put pressure on legislators to restore the first sale doctrine with newly written legislation. A victory for owner’s rights will probably cause the extremist losers to put their massive lobbying resources into action to overturn such a decision in Congress. It could be a fierce battle that few people watching from the outside will even understand until it is too late.

The theft of music and videos via the Internet has stirred the copyright holders and producers of these works to lobby on multiple fronts for the power to control everything from the Internet to the electronic devices people use to access music and movies. It is a complex problem that cannot be resolved easily.