Sell Your Used iPad, Violate Copyright Law? It Could Happen

Sell Your Used iPad, Violate Copyright Law? It Could Happen

It might be possible in the near future to violate copyright law simply by selling your old iPad 2 or iPod touch to a buyer from eBay or Craigslist, if a case soon to be seen in the Supreme Court goes horribly wrong. The Supreme Court has been asked to examine a lower court decision to prevent the sale of used electronics without securing permission from copyright holders involved in manufacturing the devices.

Since 1908, according to The Atlantic, copyright law has recognized the “first-sale doctrine,” which basically says you can sell things that you lawfully purchase. Of course, in more modern times, more than just books or paintings have a copyright associated with them. Luckily, the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that any product made and sold in the U.S. was subject to the first-sale rule as well, even if the sale took place abroad and the item imported back into the United States.

The current case involves textbooks. Apparently, a student who had relatives outside of the U.S. was having them send him textbooks sold for less in another country. The publisher, John Wiley & Sons, took the case to court and won: a New York federal court ruled that the first-sale doctrine does not apply to copyrighted products that were made outside of the U.S. In other words, copyright law makes the sale of these textbooks illegal without express permission from the copyright holders.

Taken one step further, the Apple products you might want to sell when the next version comes out are manufactured abroad. If you’ve opened an Apple product box, you’ve seen the famous words, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” If you want to sell it, according to the current court decision, you’ll need to get permission from Apple at least, and probably Google for the Maps software, though that may be a moot point with iOS 6.

Here’s how goofy current copyright law can be. If the current decision stands, you’ll need to check every single thing you want to sell, from iPods to MacBooks, books, DVDs, and even appliances, to make sure it wasn’t manufactured abroad.

Hopefully the Supreme Court will look at this and see it for the absurd result it is, and set things right. While of course copyright holders need to be protected, this (hopefully) unintended and absurd set of consequences of a law set up in 1908 and a loophole decided 90 years later needs to be updated for the current state of global commerce and consumer purchasing behaviors.

  • JohnWilson

    I think you’re comparing two different things. The court case you cited referred to textbooks which fall under a different category than devices. 

  • Alberto Hernandez

    That would be ridiculous and less people would buy newer versions of devices. The only reason I have my iPhone 4 is because I was able to sell my iPhone 3G for over $200. If I am not able to sell my iPhone 4 then I sure as hell would not buy the next iPhone.

  • Patrick M Phillips

    Yet another reason why IP is nothing more than a gov’t granted monopoly that grants artificial “ownership” of something that isn’t “property” at all. You cannot “own” an idea, nor can you “own” something that’s infinitely reproducible. It’s a total redefinition of what property is and why theft of such is a criminal act. 

    If I steal your car, I’ve removed it from your possession. I deprive you, therefore, of its use. Nothing like this happens in digital space and therefore government erects new definitions of how they define property which are full of infringements on liberty. It’s protectionism, and protectionism squashes innovation and progress. 
    The fashion industry does quite well without IP. Coca-Cola rakes in billions without the aid of IP as recipes too can’t be patented. 
  • Patrick M Phillips

    Yet another reason why IP is nothing more than a gov’t granted monopoly that grants artificial “ownership” of something that isn’t “property” at all. You cannot “own” an idea, nor can you “own” something that’s infinitely reproducible. It’s a total redefinition of what property is and why theft of such is a criminal act. 

    If I steal your car, I’ve removed it from your possession. I deprive you, therefore, of its use. Nothing like this happens in digital space and therefore government erects new definitions of how they define property which are full of infringements on liberty. It’s protectionism, and protectionism squashes innovation and progress. 
    The fashion industry does quite well without IP. Coca-Cola rakes in billions without the aid of IP as recipes too can’t be patented. 
  • imajoebob

    You’re WAY off the mark.  This has nothing to do with your software.  The violation of copyright occurs when you import/sell a work from someone who isn’t the US copyright holder.  Many books are licensed for sale/copyrighted by different companies in different countries.  But software is almost universally owned and copyrighted by single entities, or at least divisions of the same single entity.  So whether you buy a copy of Photoshop in The US, the UK, or the Ukraine, it’s all still copyrighted by Adobe.  Microsoft is the sole copyright holder of Word.  But if Schotterburg Textbooks GmbH ships you a copy of 4th Grade Nuclear Physics, a US copyright owned by Wiley, you’ve violated the law.  It’s not the importation that’s illegal, it’s the violation of Wiley’s sole right to sell it in the US.  But since virtually every software publisher owns worldwide rights to their titles, you aren’t violating the copyright by buying it in a different country.

  • Andrew John

    Shakespeare had it right, all those centuries ago. 

    “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”

  • Dale Reeck

    >>Hopefully the Supreme Court will look at this and see it for the absurd result it is, and set things right. 


    Except that the very same SC ruled that corporations are people and these justices are bought and paid for, both liberals and conservatives, by the richest among us. 

    So, good luck with that “hopefully” thing.


  • Stacy Gildersleeve

    If I buy ANYTHING legally in the US and then resell it, I better not be violating any law. If it’s ever illegal to resell what I purchased in the same damn country I bought it I’m grabbing a torch and a pitchfork to have a party with the other demonstrators. 

About the author

Rob LeFebvreAnchorage, Alaska-based freelance writer and editor Rob LeFebvre is Cult of Mac's Culture Editor. He has contributed to various tech, gaming and iOS sites, including 148Apps, VentureBeat, and Paste Magazine. Feel free to find Rob on Twitter @roblef

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