What do medication, textbooks and assault rifles have in common?
They are all cheaper in foreign countries.
American students pay hundreds of dollars for books each year, while students in developing nations can get those same texts for pennies on the dollar, literally.
Currently, cheaper textbooks are available on the gray market, a way of importing consumer goods into the U.S. that is technically legal. But an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., may do away with this relief due to a copyright challenge of the First Sale Doctrine.
Supap Kirtsaeng, an enterprising Thai student studying in the U.S., became a gray market distributor who would buy textbooks in Thailand and then sell them on Ebay to pay for tuition, according to the New York Times.
John Wiley & Sons, Inc, a publisher of textbooks, sued Kirtsaeng in 2007 for violating their copyright, according to The Cornell Daily Sun.
Yet, students have suffered from the exploitative practices of textbook publishers long enough, and the least the government can do is rule in the favor of the struggling scholar.
Unlike other businesses, textbook publishers are unique because they don't market directly to their customers. Rather, their demand is set by college professors, while students foot the bill.
Then, students who try to recoup their losses by reselling books at the end of their courses find an updated edition or bundled material has rendered their textbooks worthless.
But the publishers'latest trick relies on copyright law, or a narrow interpretation of it.
Foreign versions of American textbooks are printed on cheap paper, often with a simplistic color scheme and fewer graphics. This makes them affordable for students in developing countries and retail for less than half the price of domestic textbooks. These books are then imported into the U.S. by a thriving gray market.
The issue at the heart of the case is copyright law, which grants copyright holders the exclusive right to distribute their material.
The First Sale Doctrine creates an exception to this right. Consumers who have purchased copyrighted materials have the right to lend, destroy or sell their copy based on this doctrine. Used book stores, libraries and Costco also rely on this right to conduct business.
However, this doctrine may be in peril, as the New York District Court and the Court of Appeals have ruled in favor of an exception to this rule. According to the New York District Court, the First Sale Doctrine does not apply to goods manufactured overseas.
In a world without the First Sale Doctrine, consumer goods would become more expensive. If foreign-manufactured textbooks cannot be resold without the publisher's permission, those publishers would be enticed to stop production in America, according to Library Journal.
This means that some companies that resell or rent textbooks may go under and thus drive up prices altogether.
The WSU library system has already dealt with funding troubles, as The Daily Evergreen reported last week. If the Supreme Court upholds this ruling, WSU’s libraries may have to research the location of manufactures for every book and either look for countless licenses from the copyright holders or refuse to stock foreign books altogether.
A ruling in favor of the textbook companies would be a ruling against the consumer and the free market and would crush the ability of companies to provide competitive pricing.
Therefore, when Kirtsaeng's case goes before the U.S. Supreme Court next month, justices must rule on the side of the student who can’t buy Top Ramen, let alone textbooks.