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Supreme Court Cases of Interest to the Higher Education Community

The U.S. Supreme Court began its fall term on Monday, October 1, 2012.  Among the array of cases it has agreed to hear, two are of interest to the higher education community.  The first of these, to be argued on October 10th, is Fisher v. University of Texas.  In this case a white student who was denied admission to University of Texas at Austin is suing the University on the grounds that its use of race in admissions decisions is unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court has previously ruled in favor of affirmative action in admissions provided that policies are narrowly tailored, but the plaintiff argues that race-based policies are unconstitutional if there is a suitable.  The SCOTUSblog case page lists all the proceedings and orders that comprise the record of the case, as well as commentary.

The second case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. is a copyright case and will determine whether the first-sale doctrine applies to imported goods.  The “first sale doctrine” in copyright law permits the owner of a lawfully made copy of a copyrighted work to resell or otherwise dispose of that copy without limitations imposed by the copyright holder. (Note: See this EDUCAUSE blog for further information.)

Textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons brought a copyright infringement suit against Kirtsaeng, a graduate student from Thailand.  Kirtsaeng’s friends and family shipped him foreign editions of Wiley textbooks printed abroad by Wiley’s affiliate Wiley Asia, which Kirtsaeng then sold on commercial websites such as eBay for allegedly substantial profits.  Wiley alleged that Kirtsaeng violated Wiley’s copyrights by unauthorized importation of textbooks only intended for a foreign market.  Kirtsaeng offered the “first sale doctrine” as a defense but the district court rejected the applicability of this defense to foreign editions of textbooks.  A jury found Kirtsaeng liable for willful copyright infringement and awarded Wiley $600,000 in statutory damages.

The main question the Supreme Court will consider is whether or not the first-sale doctrine applies to American goods assembled and purchased abroad and imported into the U.S. for sale. In other words, could a student ask her family abroad to purchase a DVD and send it to the U.S., and then turn around and sell it in the American market?  The case that will help clarify how the first-sale doctrine applies to international trade.  The decision will then impact future intellectual property disputes affected by the doctrine.  The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on this case on October 29th.   The case page on the SCOTUSblog again contains all the relevant documents and writings associated with the case.

Decisions in both cases are expected in 2013.  EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor and report on these issues.

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