As we all know, college textbooks is a big business. Your calculus book by Stewart helped buy him a $24 million dollar house, after all.
What you might not know is that publishers often sell the exact same textbook in an “International Edition” in places like India and China for a greatly reduced price. Which is entirely fair since students in these countries have a lot less money available for textbooks. There is no way they could afford US prices.
The question then becomes: “Is it legal to buy and sell International Editions in the US?”
On the one side is the “First Sale Doctrine”. This says that once you’ve bought your book (or CD or DVD or what-have-you), the publisher has used up all their rights to that particular book. It’s yours to keep, lend, sell, or bury in your backyard. This is why used bookstores, libraries, and borrowing from a friend are all legal.
On the other side, there is a US law which says that publishers can forbid books and such made outside the US from being imported into the US for sale. It’s not clear if the First Sale Doctrine applies to things only made and sold in the US, or anywhere in the world.
It turns out that the law, unlike mathematics, can contradict itself!
The Supreme Court has agreed to consider the case of Supap Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons. Supap Kirtsaeng came to the US from Thailand to study math at Cornell. To make some money on the side, he started buying International Editions in Thailand and reselling them on ebay. The publishers sued, and it’s finally ended up in front of the SC. To read the full story, go here.
Depending on how it goes, you might be able to get your next textbook from China at 1/10 the price, or the “Best of Michael Jackson” CD you bought while in Rio might be illegal to sell here in the US!