Sometimes all it takes to alter the course of history is one pissed-off person. Supap Kirtsaeng wasn’t a crusader or lone nut; he was just an eBay trader who got backed into a legal corner and refused to give up.
To help pay for grad school at USC, he sold textbooks online—legitimate copies that he’d purchased overseas. But academic publishing behemoth John Wiley & Sons sued Supap, claiming that his trade in Wiley’s foreign-market textbooks constituted copyright infringement.
The implications were enormous. If publishers had the right to control resale of books that they printed and sold overseas, then it stood to reason that manufacturers could restrain trade in countless products—especially tech goods, most of which are made in Asia and contain copyrightable elements such as embedded software.
Intent on setting a precedent, Wiley slammed Supap with a $600,000 jury verdict and all but buried him on appeal. But the grad student hung tough, arguing that as lawful owner of the books he had the right to resell them. Eventually he convinced the US Supreme Court to grant review.
Once Supap’s struggle hit the spotlight, powerful supporters such as eBay, Public Knowledge, Costco, and Goodwill Industries joined the fray. But the forces pitted against Supap were arguably more powerful: the movie and music industries, publishers of books and software, and even the US Solicitor General.
Defying the odds, Supap won, and the case that bears his name has become a landmark. But as the saying goes, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
Throughout 2014, Congressman Bob Goodlatte, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has been holding hearings about copyright reform. Wiley and other prominent copyright holders have been pleading for legislative restrictions on Kirtsaeng.
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Publishers charged more in the affluent North American market and less in other regions. They called this practice “market segmentation,” but to many it seemed like price-gouging. Supap discovered this himself: a textbook priced at $50 overseas might cost $100 in the US.
Starting in 2006, Supap enlisted his family to make the rounds at Bangkok bookstores, buying titles like Organic Chemistry and Fundamentals of Physics. They shipped the textbooks to Supap’s apartment in LA, and he posted the books for sale on eBay.
Over the next two years Supap imported about 500 different titles and generated sales of around a million dollars. His profit of approximately $100K over the venture’s lifespan helped fund his school expenses.
But Supap didn’t take into account that Wiley might be watching.
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In Wiley’s global empire, market segmentation was a revered practice. In the US market, Wiley sold premium-priced textbooks with glossy hard covers and sewn-ribbon bookmarks. In overseas markets, Wiley sold economy versions—the same content but with cheaper materials and a warning banner stating that the books couldn’t be sold in North America.