The Copyright Act provides that a copyright holder has exclusive right to authorize the production, importation, and distribution of any copies. Under the first-sale doctrine, codified in the Copyright Act, the copyright holder exhausts those rights when he or she sells the material copies. The Ninth Circuit held here that the first-sale doctrine does not apply when the copy was produced abroad, unless the authorized first sale was in the United States.
The consequence is that any authentic material copy of a copyrighted work, including any ordinary good with a copyrighted label, that was produced and sold abroad cannot be resold, given as a gift, or donated in the United States. Because this holding, besides being unsupported by the Copyright Act, substantially undermines ordinary consumers’ personal property rights, Public Citizen filed an amicus brief urging the Court to grant certiorari and overturn the Ninth Circuit’s holding. The Court granted cert., and Public Citizen filed a merits-stage amicus brief supporting the petitioner.
On December 3, 2010, the Ninth Circuit decision was affirmed without opinion by an equally divided Supreme Court.