Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the controversial and divisive case of Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, essentially backing the importation and resale of goods, included copyrighted ones, purchased abroad.
The case centered around Supap Kirtsaeng, a Thailand native and a now-former student in the U.S. He carved out a business for himself importing cheaper textbooks from his native country and reselling them online. Though the textbooks were legally purchased, published John Wiley & Sons felt that it was an infringement as copyright law grants copyright holders the right to control when works are imported into the U.S.
However, copyright law also grants the purchaser of a legally-bought work the right to resell that work, also known as the right of first sale. This created a clash of two rights that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court and, in the end, it reversed a lower court ruling and backed the right of first sale, going against interests in the entertainment and publishing industries.
But why should you care? If you aren’t reselling textbooks or eBaying your personal library, it might not seem like this applies.
However, U.S. Supreme Court rulings are incredibly important, especially when it comes to copyright and related issues on the Internet. This is true even if you don’t live in the United States or host your site here.
The truth is, when it comes to laws that apply to the Internet, the U.S. Supreme Court is easily one of the most important institutions on the planet and one that can greatly affect you, your site and all of your online activities.
How the U.S. Court System Works
For the purpose of this article, we’ll be talking solely about the Federal Court system in the U.S. However, most state courts have a similar system within its borders. Still, since Federal Courts are the only ones that see copyright and patent cases (as well as the lion’s share of trademark disputes), it’s a good place to start.
The U.S. Court System, if we ignore outside courts such as bankruptcy, international trade and veterans appeals courts, is structured very much like a pyramid.
At the bottom of the pyramid are the district courts, which are scattered all across the country. If you live in the U.S., you can use this map to find out where the nearest district court is. These are the courts that actually try cases. These are where suits are filed, heard by judges and tried, either by judge or jury.
Many cases end at the district court level. However, rulings at this level only apply to that particular district. This means that if a similar case is heard in another district, even one nearby, there can be a very different result if there is confusion over how the law appliesthe issue.
However, with some cases, one or both parties wish to appeal and that matter is taken to the United States Court of Appeals. That, in turn, is broken up into eleven Circuits, which you can also see on the above map. The circuits are simply numbers one through eleven and are handled solely by geography.
The decisions at this level are handled by a panel of judges and their rulings apply to the entirety of the circuit. This means that the districts within the circuit are settled on an issue and should rule the same way on it but the same issue before another circuit could result in a different finding.
On that note, if one or both parties still wish to appeal, they can petition the Supreme Court. However, unlike the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court is very selective about which cases it takes and declines to hear the majority of appeals it gets. Typically, it reserves its time for cases where there is a split among the circuits, meaning two or more of the circuits have ruled differently on a matter, or there is a constitutional question at issue.
When the Supreme Court rules on an issue, that ruling, in effect, trumps all other district and appellate court rulings that may contradict it. As a result, all future rulings from all courts should align with the Supreme Court.
The Importance of the Supreme Court
The reason that Supreme Court rulings are so important can be summarized in one word: Precedent.
Precedent, in the legal context of the word, is simply looking at how other courts have ruled on similar cases to support one’s position. Since precedent from the Supreme Court applies to all circuits and all district courts, it is considered the most valuable.
This has a very interesting impact on future legal challenges. Most obviously, it help guides who wins and loses at all levels of the courts. It also shapes the arguments that are made with both sides either working to put their case in the light of a Supreme Court decision or distance it from one. In short, after a Supreme Court ruling, cases that come after are often placed in the light of that decision, either by showing it’s parallels or highlighting its differences from the Supreme Court Ruling.
However, a Supreme Court ruling can also help decide what types of cases are brought. For example, if the Kirtsaeng case had gone the other way, we likely would soon be seeing publishers suing many different types of book importers, knowing that the Supreme Court ruling makes victory much more likely.
Why You Should Care
For those who live in the U.S., the reason to care is obvious. Supreme Court decisions, especially those that might be relevant to your daily life, are so rare and play such a major part in determining how laws are applied, a decision one way or another can have a drastic impact.
But even if you don’t live in the U.S., the rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court can still have a drastic impact on you, especially if you work online.
The reason is that so much of the Internet is either hosted on U.S. servers (YouTube, Facebook, etc.), passes through U.S. companies (Google, Microsoft, etc.) or involves selling to the U.S. (Amazon, eBay, etc.) that decisions by the Supreme Court affects many companies with international reach.
For example, the Kirtsaeng ruling could have made it difficult to import copyrighted works into the U.S. or resell legally-bought works here. That, in turn, would have created challenges for both eBay and Amazon, two companies that specialize in marketplaces for such reselling.
That result, in turn, could have had an impact on resellers all over the world, especially those who sell to the U.S.
In short, as long as so much of the Internet and the largest companies on the Web are based in the U.S., it’s important for everyone to at least be aware of the potential changes in the legal climate of the country, including Supreme Court decisions.
Those in the legal field treat Supreme Court decisions with a near-religious reverence. They are relatively rare decisions passed down from on high that change the rules for everyone all across the country. They can bring clarity, major changes and new opportunities to those in the field.
But to most of the media, unless the decision is in a controversial or divisive issue, the decisions are usually little more than footnotes, barely worthy of a mention. That’s unfortunate because those decisions can drastically impact the lives of everyday citizens as much, if not more, than lawyers and other judges.
Simply put, the Supreme Court is a central part of the legal process and it plays a crucial role in interpreting the laws that were written by Congress. While that might not seem important, given all of the overlap and the ambiguity often written into the laws, it gives the Supreme Court (as well as the lower courts) a lot of room for interpretation.
So while every U.S. citizen who attended a civics class knows the Supreme Court can’t write the laws it judges on, it clearly plays a big role in determining how they are applied to everyday situations.