John Wiley & Sons came up bupkis in the Supreme Court of the Unites States in their Copyright infringement case against a Cornell student who was reselling Wiley textbooks published in Thailand in the USA at a highly discounted rate. One would think that ruling is terrible for textbooks and for authors — the opposite is true.
Here’s how the NYTimes reported the story:
In a 6-to-3 decision, the court took sides with Supap Kirtsaeng, a Thai math student at Cornell who generated roughly $900,000 in revenue reselling in the United States cheap textbooks that his friends and relatives sent from Thailand.
John Wiley & Sons had argued that Mr. Kirtsaeng was infringing on its copyright by importing the books without permission. The publisher said this short-circuited its ability to segment markets by price — selling the books more expensively to American students than to poorer Thai students who could otherwise not afford them.
But the court held that the publisher’s right to ban imports was trumped by Mr. Kirtsaeng’s right of first sale. He might not be allowed to make unauthorized copies of the books. But as with old library books or secondhand Gucci bags at a flea market, if the books had been bought legally, whether imported or sold originally in the United States, Mr. Kirtsaeng could sell them.
This is a victory for consumers and authors because it will cause major publishers to end their predatory pricing policies by country and region, lowering prices across the board. Why should students in the USA pay $200.00USD for the same textbook that students in Thailand pay $20.00USD to purchase? Having a single, affordable, worldwide price will lead to more sales and remove the incentive for reselling books on the used and grey markets.
Today, authors tend to get a flat royalty rate that is heavily discounted across the regions of the world, and so they rarely make any large money past the initial royalty advance investment — if they even get upfront money. Author advances are quickly becoming a totem of antiquity, and so authors are basically work-for-hire writers, and the majority of book sale profits are kept by the publisher/distributor who owns the dirt roads and the virtual pathways.
Textbook prices are out of control. The ASL book we use in class costs $175.00USD and many math and finance textbooks are in the $250.00USD range. The prices are so obscene because the publisher only makes money on the first sale. There’s no aftermarket incentive in the used or grey markets for publishers to extort, so they get you on the first sale and leave the residual crumbs to others. Those others, now that we have a global economy, and an open, international, educational ecosystem, are taking advantage of lower regional prices to out-muscle the used book market by offering new first sales in regions other than their own — and they are winning.
Some instructors — never me — make photocopies of textbook for students, clearly violating international copyright laws, in order to help students save money. I am of the mind that if a student cannot afford the textbook, then they cannot afford to take the class; but with book prices rising along with tuition at alarming rates, I am beginning to see the despair on the student side. This Supreme Court ruling against Wiley should remedy some of these high price problems because publishers will be much more wary of secondary markets and used books and aftermarket resales because they can no longer rely on the law to enforce their guaranteed first sale monopoly.