In Soviet Russia, Thrift Store Sells You

Because our copyright scheme isn’t boneheaded enough already:

Tucked into the U.S. Supreme Court’s agenda this fall is a little-known case that could upend your ability to resell everything from your grandmother’s antique furniture to your iPhone 4.

Put simply, though Apple Inc. has the copyright on the iPhone and Mark Owen has it on the book “No Easy Day,” you can still sell your copies to whomever you please whenever you want without retribution.

That’s being challenged now for products that are made abroad, and if the Supreme Court upholds an appellate court ruling, it would mean that the copyright holders of anything you own that has been made in China, Japan or Europe, for example, would have to give you permission to sell it.


The first example that came to my mind is the stay-at-home mom making a nice little sideline buying and selling used CDs and DVDs through Amazon — probably because I buy a lot of used CDs and DVDs through Amazon. Imagine now if the Supreme Court upholds the appellate court’s tortured (and torturous) decision.

She would have to track down the copyright holder of every product she sells. That’s not as easy as it sounds (does it even sound easy?) because music rights are bought and sold all the time. In other words, just because the case says “© 1992 Warner Bros. Music” doesn’t mean Warner Bros. still hold the rights today. In some cases, record labels go bankrupt, and it isn’t clear at all who holds the rights to a particular album.

From there, things get really tricky.

Many CDs sell for just a few cents, and the resellers like our Mom above make their money on Amazon’s flat-rate $2.98 shipping fee. Essentially, you’re paying Cathy Homemaker three dollars for her time and the expense of stuffing a CD in a padded mailer and sending it to you. You’re paying very little for the actual product. So, in addition to trying to figure out who she might owe what, now she’d have to figure it out to the fraction of a cent.

The paperwork would be daunting, to say the least. The chances of Cathy Homemaker staying in business? Zilch.

Imagine the legal tangle of trying to get a simple trade-in on your used car, made with software from Washington state, electronics from South Korea, parts from Europe and Ohio, and assembled in Mexico. Shall we also try to imagine the enforcement scheme Congress would come up with, to make sure Polygram gets its due on every single resold CD that once came off the line in the Netherlands or wherever? No, let’s not do that. Instead, let’s watch Brazil (after paying the proper secondary-market royalties, of course) on the big screen and get seriously loaded. I’m sure Cathy Homemaker will be doing pretty much the same, if the Supreme Court takes her home business away from her.



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