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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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October 25, 2012

Owners Rights Initiative Kickoff, and Other Kirtsaeng Action

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Earlier this week I was invited to listen in on the inaugural press conference for a new lobbying organization calling itself the Owners' Rights Initiative.

The group, composed primarily of resellers (e.g. overstock.com), retailers (e.g. Powell's Books), and lenders (e.g. American Library Association), has formed in response to the threat to their (and our) livelihoods posed by the growing restrictions on First Sale doctrine. Notably, the group is trying to draw attention to the Kirtsaeng case that is about to be argued before the Supreme Court. Members of the coalition (such as the ALA) have filed amici briefs in the case
However, the group believes that no matter which way SCOTUS rules in this case, the action is next going to move to Congress, as the losing side will want to get legislation turning things back in their favor. Thus the group is going to focus on "advocacy" which I hear as "lobbying Congress".

The press conference featured half a dozen spokespeople for major members of the initiative, each giving a short statement of support and then taking questions from the call-in audience, most of whom appeared to be members of the press (and people like me, who fake it well). Generally the poitns made were things that Copyfight readers will be familiar with: Kirtsaeng is a case that could significantly curtail First Sale rights for people in the US by taking those rights away from products manufactured overseas. Aside from being an invitation to every manufacturer to shift their production outside the US, this would be a tremendous burden on reselling and lending institutions such as eBay, Overstock, and libraries of all sizes. In my talk to the New England Library Association I spent a bit of time trying to educate those mostly smaller-scale librarians about the dangers of this case. I found it interesting to note that the Seattle library system estimates that over 50% of its collection of printed materials (including English- and foreign-language volumes) was printed abroad. That's probably not an unrealistic yardstick, so just try to imagine that half your local library's lendable materials vanish off the shelves overnight. Yeah, that's a big problem.

ORI also seems to be focused a bit much (too much, in my view) on physical materials. The gentleman from Overstock noted with alarm that Kirtsaeng would lead to manufacturers segmenting their products by region or country and that this would mean you couldn't buy certain non-US goods in the US. Hunh, I thought to myself, isn't that what region encoding already does for DVDs? What, I wanted to know, was the big deal about that? Unfortunately, I think I mis-phrased the question to him as he kind of flubbed the answer.

ORI also seems not to be taking on the problem of First Sale rights already having been stripped from many (most? all?) electronic products such as e-books. Again, I probably mis-phrased my question about this to them and perhaps they do plan to include these materials in their drive to restore consumer rights.

I was also slightly disappointed by repeated references in the panel to "clever lawyering" as being responsible for the current situation. I've read the Second Circuit's decision and it seems a reasonable application of the law as written. If you don't like the law as written, blame Congress not the lawyers. Congress, whom the ORI hopes will fix this mess, is also full of clever lawyers. So less blame and more comprehension next time, please.

I should also note that ORI isn't alone in taking this approach. I've been getting pings from YouveBeenOwned (whose site appears to be slashdotted as I write this). This offshoot of the liberal Internet activism group Demand Progress went live in June of this year with a campaign against Kirstaeng and other things like TPP - the Trans-Pacific Partnership - that also threaten consumer rights in the US. If they can ever keep their Web site going they appear to be planning a public demonstration in DC on Monday, the day before SCOTUS hears arguments in Kirtsaeng.

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