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Using Copyright Law to Block Price Arbitrage

Movie producers sell DVDs cheaper in, say, Taiwan than they do in the US.  This is not an unheard of economic phenomenon -- it happens in every commodity and product.  The reason we don't notice these price differences too much is that traders and arbitragers and shipping companies will target the largest price differentials and take advantage of them by buying and shifting products around until the price differential is less than the transportation and transaction costs.  Basic economics.

However, despite a number of structural advantages that already serve to reduce this cross-flow (e.g. different languages), the media companies are trying to stretch copyright law far beyond what CopyOwner says is legally defensible:

Copyright owners (including the owners of the “works” embodied in the copyrighted labels on common non-copyrighted goods) like to discriminate in pricing by creating artificial markets so that discounts in one market won’t be resold at a lower price in over-priced markets. The thinking goes, “Why let U.S. consumers get the benefit of prices that are affordable to people in developing countries when we know we can get more out of the U.S. consumer’s pocket?”

The “first sale doctrine,” now codified as Section 109 of the Copyright Act, makes clear that the copyright owner’s right of distribution is subject to the copy owner’s right to sell it to anyone, anywhere, at any price. And that’s great policy. Entrepreneurs who see too big a gap between the prices charged U.S. consumers and the prices charged consumers elsewhere for identical copies can buy the cheaper product and sell it at a profit, while still giving the U.S. consumer a better bargain.

But that’s not why I nearly fell out of my chair. I was used to these anti-competitive price discriminators ranting about perfectly lawful gray market goods. What this story does is label these perfectly legal importers as pirates. That’s right. Despite quoting the Supreme Court in Quality King Distributors v. L’anza Research International, that “once the copyright owner places a copyrighted item in the stream of commerce by selling it, he has exhausted his exclusive statutory right to control its distribution,” a ruling that suggests that the evildoers are those who try to circumvent the law by preventing gray market imports, they go on to call the importers “pirates”

Posted on January 6, 2008 at 10:02 PM | Permalink


Yeah, well, they misuse the term "pirate" but then CopyOwner goes on to misuse it as well:

Copyright owners have enough trouble with real pirates. Infringement is a huge problem.

Let's see. Infringement: illicitly copying something. Piracy: Stealing ships and killing people.. Hmm. A little bit different, yes?

Anyway, I find that the most despicable means of suppressing this "gray market" is through DRM and the DMCA. The DMCA makes it illegal to decrypt DVDs, and that's the only reason region encoding is effective in maintaining these artificial price differences. Yep, thanks to a bad law passed by the U.S. Congress.

Posted by: Josh | Jan 7, 2008 12:55:02 AM

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