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.