How an eBay bookseller Defeated a Publishing Giant at the Supreme Court

Great piece by Doug Kari for Ars Technica:

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.”