His name was Supap Kirtsaeng and he made a few bucks on the side. While a studying in the USA, he realised that while his expensive college textbooks were also available in substantially cheaper editions in his native Thailand. So, he figured, why not buy a few and and sell them to his mates? Why not buy a dozen? A hundred?
John Wiley & Sons, a respectable academic press, took Kirtsaeng to court, claiming that his little sideline had already notched up lost sales of $1.2 million. And after appeal, Kitsaeng won in March of this year, with a Supreme Court ruling in his favour, stating that the First Sale Doctrine supported his little loophole. According to American law, in line with the laws of many other countries, once you buy an item for yourself, it’s your legal right to do whatever the hell you like with it, including selling it to someone else.
You may be wondering, what the hell does that have to do with you? Well… for starters, don’t be surprised if it’s a major contributor to the new X-Box policy on forcing people to rent access to their games instead of buying them outright. More importantly for the anime fan, it makes it unpleasantly clear to Japanese rights holders that if something sells cheaper, say, in the UK, than it does in Japan, then it is unlikely to be possible to argue someone can’t import it back into Japan. Take the argument to extremes, and it is a strong case for making all foreign fans pay the same high costs as Japanese fans, in order to protect the Japanese business.
Fast forward to June, and suddenly Macross Plus is released in Japan as a region-free blu-ray with English sub and dub. Great news for you if you want to drop £70 on it. But why on earth would a British distributor buy the rights, when they already know a substantial number of customers will have already bought it direct from Japan? The anime companies are now calling our bluffs. We said grey importing wasn’t worth worrying about. Okay, they’ve said, how do you feel about grey exporting…?
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #113, 2013.