11/20/2012 08:15 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

No Show? A Court Case About Textbooks Could Have Dire Consequences For American Museums

Unlike many of the city's galleries, New York's museums made it out of Hurricane Sandy relatively unscathed. But even as the storm raged, they were quietly facing another battle--
in court.

Blockbuster exhibitions like the Guggenheim's "Picasso Black and White," the Whitney's "Yayoi Kusama" and the Met's "The Steins Collect" could be a thing of the past if a decision in a lower-court case involving textbook sales is upheld by the Supreme Court. On Oct. 29, the court, which was open despite the hurricane, heard oral arguments in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, a legal battle over whether copyrighted books produced abroad can be imported to the U.S. and resold. Though the case involves textbooks, it also implicates a section of the copyright law that applies to Picassos and Brancusis. The case started out in 2008 in federal district court in New York. Supap Kirtsaeng, a foreign exchange student at Cornell, found that his textbooks could be purchased more cheaply in his native Thailand, so he asked friends to buy the books there and ship them to New York. He then started selling them on eBay and, when he had racked up $37,000 from those sales, the textbooks' publishers, John Wiley & Sons, filed suit. Mr. Kirtsaeng was found guilty of willful infringement and was asked to pay $75,000 for each of the eight Wiley textbooks he sold copies of, for a total of $600,000. Mr. Kirtsaeng appealed that decision, and in August 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found him guilty as well. In the meantime, in July 2012, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and a group of 28 American museums including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, The J. Paul Getty Trust, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney filed a brief as "friends of the court," in support of Mr. Kirtsaeng.

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