Your Right to Have a Yard Sale is Under Attack

OK. I’ll admit. I used that title to grab you. But I do want to write about a little-known part of the law that guarantees your right to resell stuff you’ve bought legally. Garage SaleIt’s called the “first sale doctrine” – an obscure part of copyright law that basically says once you buy something, you own it and can do with it whatever you want – regardless of who holds the copyright on it. Take a book or a CD.  If you buy it, after you listen to it or read it (or even if you don’t), you have every right to sell it at your next yard sale. But now, the Supreme Court is hearing a case that challenges that right. The catch is that it’s only for goods made overseas. But if you think about the amount of goods we consume that are produced overseas, this case could still have a huge impact. Think about it. You wouldn’t be able to sell your used iPod. Or a book that was published overseas – even if the author (the copyright holder) is American. You might be forbidden from selling a thing you supposedly own or – even dicier – if you want to sell it, you might have to pay the copyright holder. You can imagine the complexity in trying to make a system that compensated the original copyright holder of, say, a bicycle (to stick with my yard sale example) that you bought 10 years ago. The Supreme Court case stems from a college student who bought textbooks overseas (for cheaper than he would have paid in the U.S.) and then resold them in the U.S. at a huge profit. The publisher sued him. For a more complete rundown of the case, see The Wall Street Journal article on it here. I’m in the business of buying and selling goods – moving them through the economy and helping companies with overstock inventory. I’m in the reselling business. Obviously, this would be a huge deal for my business. But forget about me. Think about huge companies like Ebay or Craigslist for whom reselling is core to their business. Regardless of the consequences for the textbook guy, a decision by the Supreme Court could really affect the global economy. It might even encourage companies to produce goods overseas if they can make a profit in the downstream sales of their goods. Not something that any politician or businessman wants to see. I’m no lawyer, but it’s pretty interesting – and important – stuff. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case October 29. Stay tuned…

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