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If you sell your used iPad, you may be a copyright criminal, says U.S. Supreme Court

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: iPad, copyright, Supreme Court

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(NaturalNews) There is another copyright battle emerging over intellectual property, and this time you, John or Jane Q. Citizen, could be smack-dab in the middle of it, for one of the most innocuous acts you could imagine - selling your used iPad.

At present the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to rule on a case that will affect whether you can sell that iPad of yours, or any of dozens of other products, without first getting permission from scores of "copyright holders," The Atlantic magazine reported.

If the nation's highest court upholds rulings from lower federal courts on the matter, here are a few of the things that you have possibly done recently but will no longer be permissible:

-- Sold a first-generation iPad to someone on Craigslist, even if you initially bought it from a licensed Apple dealer;

-- Sold a used Omega watch on eBay so you could buy a better (new or used) Rolex at a local jewelry store;

-- Sold an "import CD" of a band whose album was only released overseas but was purchased legally there; ditto for a copy of a foreign novel that wasn't released in the U.S.;

-- "Sold your house to a willing buyer, so long as you sell your house along with the fixtures manufactured in China, a chandelier made in Thailand or Paris, support beams produced in Canada that carry the imprint of a copyrighted logo, or a bricks or a marble countertop made in Italy with any copyrighted features or insignia," The Atlantic reported.

What in the world...?

Designed here, but made overseas - that's the issue

According to reports, the Supreme Court case centers around the "first-sale doctrine" in copyright law. The doctrine simply means that you are allowed to buy and sell the things you purchase - even if your things have a copyright holder, you can still sell them because the copyright holder's control extends only to the "first-sale," a concept that the high court has observed for over a century.

Think of it like this. You buy a book by an author; the author owns the copyright so you can't legally make copies of the book without that author's permission. But, under the first-sale doctrine, you bought a copy of the book and sell your copy to someone else - a friend, co-worker or a willing buyer online.

In 1998, the first-sale doctrine was challenged by some copyright holders, but the Supreme Court held that it applied to all products made and sold in the U.S. The current case, however, stems from products manufactured abroad; in particular, it involved textbooks.

John Wiley & Sons sells two versions of its textbooks - an expensive version in the United States and a less-expensive version overseas. Supap Kirtsaeng, a foreign graduate student at University of Southern California (USC), wanted to help pay for his education so he asked relatives overseas to purchase copies of his textbooks and then ship them to him, which he then sold. He made money and fellow students saved money, but a U.S. district court in New York agreed with Wiley that the practice harmed the company because it resulted in fewer domestic sales of its pricier versions.

Extrapolate that to other products sold in the U.S. but manufactured abroad, like your iPad. You may have seen the statement on it which says, "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China." The same is true for your iPods, Mac computers, and your iPhones.

An absurd interpretation that has dire implications for U.S. products

Because the products were manufactured abroad, the first-sale doctrine does not apply, so to sell them, you would need the copyright holders' permission.

"That means, you need to ask Apple for permission, and probably Google, whose Maps software comes bundled with the iPad, and includes Google copyrights," The Atlantic said.

Get the picture? Before you sell anything (an old couch, books, your favorite toaster, a poster of an 80's hair band) you would have to look to see if it contained a copyrighted logo anywhere on it, and whether or not the product was "Made in the U.S.A." or abroad.

The lower court did acknowledge "the force of concern" that its ruling could force more companies to move their operations overseas, and that the law in particular was not clear.

No matter. The Second Circuit essentially said that if its ruling leads to such a bizarre conclusion, Congress could work out the details at a later date - an absurd assumption on its face, given the workload Congress already has and its reliance on federal courts not to reach such absurd conclusions when ruling on U.S law.

Despite the apparent confusion in the lower courts about what the first-sale doctrine genuinely means, the Supreme Court can put an end to the foolishness by exercising basic common sense in its ruling. After all, courts are supposed to interpret laws to avoid "absurd results" and constitutional conflicts. In this case, upholding the lower courts would certainly affect Americans' first amendment rights to buy and sell their own products at home and abroad, as well strip them of property rights without compensation.

We'll keep an eye on this one.

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