10/31/2012 05:10 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

You Bought That Book, But Is It Yours?

Walk down the street to your neighborhood bookstore and buy a book. Is it yours now? It's copyrighted, so does the author retain the legal rights to the words in that book? Could the author (or more likely, the publisher) legally decide that what you've bought is the right to read the book yourself, but not the right to do what you want with the physical object? If they print "you can sell this in Oregon, but not in New York," can they legally hold you to that?

The answer is no, the book actually belongs to you, to do with what you will, because U.S. copyright law says that once you've bought a book (or CD, or any other copyrighted thing) that was "lawfully made under U.S. copyright law," then you own it, and you may sell it, lend it, or do whatever else you like with it. So good news: the book you bought is yours!

Well, so long as it was "lawfully made under U.S. copyright law." That makes sense, right? If someone makes illegal copies of a book, then you've bought them illegally, and you are not allowed to resell them. Makes sense.

But here's the twist: any book (or other product) made outside the U.S. was presumably not made "under U.S. copyright law." Enter Supap Kirtsaeng. Adam Liptak just wrote about the case. This kid Supap came from Thailand to the U.S. so he could go to Cornell. His family bought textbooks back home in Thailand, where Wiley & Sons publisher sells them much cheaper. They'd ship them to him in Ithaca, and he'd sell them on ebay, cheap. He made some real money. Wiley & Sons sued him and they won. Now the Supreme Court is deciding the case.

If they decide that a publisher can prevent you from selling (or, presumably, loaning) a book that you bought in another country, which is a very real possibility, I'm not sure what would stop Wiley & Sons from moving all their publishing operations overseas and then stopping all resales of their books. Or, as Justice Stephen Breyer said during oral arguments, what about Toyota? They make cars in Japan, with copyrighted sound systems, also made and first sold in Japan. Could the copyright holder on that sound system stop you from selling your used Toyota?

Sounds crazy, right? Like it could never happen. But remember, the original court ruled in favor of Wiley & Sons. And even more frightening, the Supreme Court heard a similar case, Wholesale Corp. v. Omega, a couple of years ago. In that case, Justice Kagan recused herself, and the vote was 4-4. Kagan is in on this decision. Here's hoping she lets us keep our books, even if we bought them in Thailand.