Watch Importation, Copyright, and the First-Sale Doctrine
The "Omega Seamaster Ploprof 1200m" wristwatch.
In Cutting edges, blogger Peter Gordon relates a fascinating case where Swiss watchmaker Omega found a brilliantly evil trick using IP law to crack down on innocent market activity. Omega
sells its watches for far less money in some countries than in others, a common enough practice known to economists as “geographical price discrimination.” The U.S. market will generally bear more than the market in a Latin American republic, and so Omega offers its goods to distributors in places such as Paraguay for less than it does to American distributors.
The difference in prices creates “a tempting arbitrage opportunity in importing Omega watches from Paraguay to the U.S. It is just such watches that Costco bought from a stateside importer, allowing the warehouse store to offer an Omega Seamaster for $1,299 when the brand preferred them sold in the U.S. for $1,999.”
Omega doesn’t like this. However, they “couldn’t complain that Costco was peddling fakes—the watches were authentic goods.” And there was not trademark infringement either since the goods were genuine. So what they did was find a way to use copyright. ”They fashioned a small globe logo and copyrighted the device in the U.S.” Then they sued Costco for copyright infringement–using Omega’s copyright without its permission. One would think the copyright law “First Sale Doctrine” would not permit this cause of action. The idea is that when the owner of a copyright sells a copy to a buyer, the buyer is free to resell that particular copy. The seller is said to have “exhausted” his rights in the copyright in the first sale. The buyer cannot make extra copies, but he can re-sell his copy. This is why the used book sales do not infringe the author or publisher’s copyright. But, “[t]he appeals judges decided that, since the first sale of the Omega watches in question happened outside of the U.S., America’s first-sale doctrine doesn’t apply.”
As the post observes, this is
is a small technicality that, in a global economy, could have large implications. … Constrain the first-sale doctrine and you throw a wrench into the business of used-book stores, garage sales (including the electronic garage sale that is eBay), and any and every sort of secondhand shop. And yes, even public libraries might find themselves facing the challenge of figuring out which books on the stacks were first sold in the U.S., and which were first sold abroad.
This is just an example of how IP law is insidious because it can leech into other areas of law that are not protected by copyright. Here, Omega used copyright to stop otherwise legal price arbitrage.
Printer Cartridge Patents
Other examples abound.