A case before the U.S. Supreme Court might just take the "first sale" doctrine of copyright law into murky waters. And it all hinges on where the product in question was made - and where it was intended to be sold.
The Supreme Court case is based on a few precedential cases, one of them being John Wiley & Sons v. Kirtsaeng.
Supap Kirtsaeng, a foreign graduate student at the University of Southern California, realized (as many American college students have) that he could get international versions of the same textbooks for much less money. So he had the folks back home in Thailand buy and send him copies of the textbooks he needed.
That might have been fine if he'd stopped there. Instead, as a way of paying his way through college, he had relatives back home send him international copies of textbooks also used in America and sold them on eBay. How many books did he sell, you ask? Enough to rake in $1.2 million in revenue.
Problem is, the books contained language that specified that they were only to be sold within a particular country or geographical area - an area that didn't include the United States. Therefore, the first sale doctrine didn't cover Kirtsaeng's textbook business.
A similar case concerned whether Costco could sell Omega Swiss watches that a distributor had bought in another country for a lot less money than Omega watches generally sell for in the U.S. The Supreme Court ruled on the Costco case, but did not offer a precedential ruling that would make the law clear in other cases.
Will the outcome of the Wiley case affect individuals who buy copyrighted items overseas, such as electronics or published books, and later sell them on eBay? The Supremes have a few ways to go that would allow the law to distinguish between opportunists on a large scale, like Kirtsaeng, and individuals who just want to sell a few of their own things on Craigslist. That makes it likely that they will avoid "absurd results" that courts are supposed to steer clear of. One can only hope so.