The decision by the US Supreme Court last week absolving a Thai former student from using the "grey market" to run a small business is both a victory for free markets and an illustration of anachronistic copyright laws.
The highest US court found that Supap Kirtsaeng, now a professor, acted legally when he set up a grey book market when he was a student in New York and California. He bought cheap "Asian editions" of college textbooks in Thailand, imported them to the US and sold them below the prices charged by US campus bookstores. The publisher of some of the textbooks said that was illegal.
Rationally, this is nonsense. Mr Supap did what almost all middlemen do in a capitalist system. He found a cheap supply of goods, and matched it to a market, making a profit in the process.
But the publisher John Wiley and Sons charged Mr Supap under copyright laws. The company claimed it had the sole right, not only to sell the books it published, but also to resell those books.
This is a clear violation of justice. But copyright law, as Mr Supap and others discovered, has little if anything to do with justice.
Several courts found the John Wiley claims valid. Mr Supap was forced to go through a series of humiliating and ridiculous losses in lower courts. At one point the court seized his personal computer and golf clubs to sell them for damages. Finally, the Supreme Court stepped in and reversed all the convictions.
Mr Supap stands vindicated, although poorer in time and money for his long, principled legal battle. There should be no doubt, however, of the absurdity of 20th century copyright law in the 21st century.
Mr Supap recognised, for example, that the "Asian editions" of textbooks are not sold in some remote, far-off country from the United States but, thanks to today's efficient cargo system, a few days or a few hours away.
In a few weeks, the US government will judge Thailand and the rest of the world on that same copyright law, and on other intellectual property (IP) issues which are just as out of date. The US Trade Representative and State Department will be "seriously concerned about Thailand's failure" to enforce IP laws.
Copyrights, trademarks and patents are important parts of the US economy. Piracy is a serious problem. But as it did with Mr Supap, the US has gone far overboard in applying old standards to new situations.
Case in point _ Thai mobile phone companies dropped the "locked" handset in 2002, but the US has just passed new regulations that bar unlocking phones. Another example _ Thailand has been on the "dirty dozen" list of top world pirates since 2007 because the government issued a legal "compulsory licence" to make anti-Aids drugs _ which angered a US drug company.
Mr Supap's case against a silly copyright stipulation had to go to the Supreme Court for a common sense decision. There are dozens if not hundreds of similar laws the US will not simply try to enforce, but try to enforce worldwide. What is needed instead is a proper discussion, followed by action to bring IP laws into the 21st century.