Kirstaeng v. Wiley case impacts book publishers, libraries and textbooks


As the nation awaits case decisions on affirmative action and same-sex marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in another case that impacts libraries nationwide, including those at UT.

In late March, the nation’s highest court ruled in the Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons Inc. case that the first-sale doctrine applies to all lawful copyrighted works, including those made abroad. The doctrine allows consumers of copyrighted material to give away, loan or sell that copy without the permission of the copyright owner.

While attending college, plaintiff Supap Kirtsaeng imported cheaper textbooks from abroad and resold them domestically at higher prices. Wiley & Sons, a global publishing company, discovered the acts and sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement.

Some students are hopeful that changes to increasing textbook prices will occur domestically. Computer science sophomore Chance Raine said he paid more than $300 for textbooks this past semester.

“It would be great if textbook prices would decrease,” Raine said. “It would be that much more money to spend on other things such as housing and food because everything else is going up.”

But Stephen Wolfson, law lecturer and reference librarian at the University’s Tarlton Law Library, said even after the court’s decision, he does not anticipate a big change in domestic textbook prices.

“I think that it’s more likely we will see a drop in textbook prices because of greater electronic textbook uses,” Wolfson said. “Textbook rentals will probably continue to increase. I think that you will continue to see these $120 textbooks for a while. I am not sure if Kirtsaeng will make a giant impact into that — it could — but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

The court’s decision impacts more than the case’s litigants. Georgia Harper, scholarly communications adviser for UT Libraries, said the case was important to libraries across the nation as it gives libraries certainty to lend international works.

“All libraries, especially at research institutions like the University of Texas, contain books that are manufactured and published all over the place,” Harper said. Harper wants to make certain that lending their collection becomes legal, something libraries have done for centuries.

If the court had sided with Wiley & Sons, Harper said libraries would have been in trouble.

“Books don’t always indicate where they were printed or manufactured,” Harper said. “That means we wouldn’t even know which of our books for sure were legal to lend and which weren’t, and that was the biggest part of the problem.”

The Association of American Publishers said the decision will discourage the active export of U.S. copyrighted works and reduce the ability of educators and students in foreign countries to have access to U.S. produced educational material.

Wolfson said the issues raised by both sides have sparked new debates about overhauling intellectual property laws such as the Copyright Act of 1976.  

“It was good for its time, but of course time moves on,” Wolfson said. “It was based on an analog world, but that doesn’t make sense anymore in the world we live with digital technology. I feel copyright holders need some ability to protect their works, but we as users need our rights to use things protected as well. There’s a balance here that needs to be figured out.”