Can US Museums Exhibit Foreign Art? Supreme Court to Decide

Here’s a nice recap of the background story via Alison Keeley.

Supap Kirtsaeng came to the United States from Thailand in 1997 to study at Cornell.  Kirtsaeng financed his education in part by having relatives in Thailand purchase and ship textbooks to the United States.  He would then sell the textbooks on Ebay and other websites, repay his relatives in Thailand, and keep the profits.

Kirtsaeng brought in up to $1.2 million in revenue. Smart kid; probably why he’s a Cornell math grad and USC math PhD (disclaimer, yours truly attended Cornell Law School). So, you may ask, what’s the big deal, and what does this have to do with foreign art and US museums? The art part concerns the exhibiting, lending and selling of foreign-made artworks. The law part comes in under one of our favorite legal doctrines, US Copyright law; in particular, the so-called “first sale doctrine.”

The First Sale Doctrine provides that an individual who knowingly purchases a copy of a copyrighted work from the copyright holder receives the right to sell, display, lend, or otherwise dispose of that particular copy, notwithstanding the interests of the copyright owner. So, presumably, Kirtsaeng was well within his legal right to resell books, right? Not so fast.

In 2008, a book publisher, John Wiley & Sons, sued Kirtsaeng for copyright and trademark infringement, alleging that the first sale doctrine did not apply to foreign made works. The New York District Court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, agreeing with the publisher, both held that Kirtsaeng violated John Wiley & Sons’ copyright by selling the publishers’ Thai edition textbooks in America. The Second Circuit looked to the plain text of the Copyright Act, which states that the first sale doctrine applies only to copyrighted goods “lawfully made under this title.” The court found that “lawfully made under this title” referred only to goods manufactured in the United States.

In effect, both courts hold the opinion that the first sale doctrine only applies to goods sold within the U.S., meaning that no one can import and sell a copyrighted good intended only for foreign audiences without the permission of the copyright owner. Kirtsaeng appealed to the US Supreme Court.

Of import to the artworld? The NY district court’s and Second Circuit’s decision doesn’t only impact eBay sellers; it impacts US-based museums and arts institutions by preventing them from exhibiting, lending, or selling foreign-made, copyrighted artworks.

So, what’s a US-based art institution to do?

The Association of Art Museum Directors, the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and twenty-two other United States museums of art submitted an amicus brief (friend of the court brief) to the US Supreme Court in support of Kirtsaeng. Here’s their thesis, in a nutshell.

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