Supap Kirtsaeng had tuition and living expenses to pay when he arrived in the United States from Thailand to attend college.
So he started a side business, asking family and friends back home to ship him foreign editions of textbooks that often can be bought more cheaply overseas. Kirtsaeng resold them online and made money, but he was sued for copyright infringement and lost.
That decision was appealed and the case is now before the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on Monday in a dispute that has attracted interest from the Obama administration, media and publishing companies, and a range of consumer and retail groups.
Competing claims of intellectual property and owners rights in the electronic age have made Kirtsaeng's venture one of the most closely watched business cases at the high court this term.
"I have to say the Supreme Court is faced with a really difficult job here because the text of the [copyright] statute really seems to be hard to reconcile -- the two provisions at issue seem to say opposite things," said Michael Carroll, a professor at American University's law school and an intellectual property expert.
Corporate giants to yard sales
The legal issue is whether copyrighted works made and purchased abroad can then be bought and sold within the United States without the copyright owner's permission.
Yet the stakes could prove enormous for those who buy and sell books, movies, music, artwork, perhaps even furniture, electronics, automobiles, and clothing -- anything that may be considered "intellectual property."
Storefront and at-home secondary retailers, libraries, artistic venues, even the local garage sale could be implicated.
Kirtsaeng came to the United States to study mathematics in 1997 at Cornell University and later at the University of Southern California for doctoral studies.
Using the computer tag BlueChristine99, he sold the imported books online in the United States on eBay. Court records show he earned about $1.2 million in revenue, but both sides disagree over how much profit he made.
Specifically he sold dozens of copies of eight textbooks printed in Asia by a subsidiary of John Wiley & Sons publishers. Kirtsaeng's lawyers claim his gross revenue from the Wiley sales was just $37,000.
The company sued and a federal jury found Kirtsaeng's conduct was willful and ordered him to pay $600,000 in damages.
The New Jersey publisher has a thriving overseas business. Its foreign editions typically have a disclaimer: "This book is authorized for sale in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East only and may not be exported. Exportation from or importation of this book to another region without the publisher's authorization is illegal."
The high court will consider the limits of two key interpretations of copyright law -- the "first sale doctrine" and its complex relationship to foreign distribution rights. The arcane language can be dense but the justices are expected to use their questioning at the oral argument to zero in on competing principles and whether one overrides the other.
The first-sale doctrine generally gives copyright holders the ability to profit only from the original sale.
It essentially means once you the consumer lawfully buy a Peter Max lithograph or an Adele music CD in the United States, you then can sell that copyrighted work in the United States without punishment and without having to compensate the original copyright holder.
It ensures a distribution chain of retail items, library lending, gift giving, and rentals for a range of intellectual property. That stream of commerce includes secondary markets like flea markets and online resellers Craigslist and eBay.
'You bought it, you own it'
The idea -- upheld by the Supreme Court since 1908 -- is that once a copyright holder legally sells a product initially, the ownership claim is then exhausted, giving the buyer the power to resell, destroy, donate, whatever. It's a limited idea -- involving only a buyer's distribution right, not the power to reproduce that DVD or designer dress for sale.