It has become a cliché to say that we live in a global economy. Yet we do. A simple trip to the supermarket or a big-box retailer will reveal food and wares from all over the globe. More and more companies are not only global but integrated internationally through the mini-miracles of technology.
And with the Brave New World, new legal questions arise.
Take the simple question of buying a book. Once you buy it (and assuming you buy it lawfully with the copyright owner’s permission), it is yours to do what you wish with. You can keep it, sell it, give it away, and so on and so forth.
But now consider this. The copyright owner gives permission for a book to be printed overseas. The permission is limited to the purpose of distributing the book abroad. There are even import laws that would prevent the manufacturer from sending its products back to the US. But what if an individual — or a local company — buys the book? Is it his or hers to do with as they wish? Does that include shipping it back to the US and selling it there? Did they not acquire, regardless of the restrictions on the manufacturer, that very right by the act of purchase, as they would if they bought it in, say, Detroit? (This is assuming nothing is really “imported from Detroit.”) Or should the limitations painstakingly agreed to by everyone involved in the printint deal hold sway?
This is one question brought by the new economy that the Supreme Court answered recently. Yes, the buyer may do with the book whatever they wish, including mail it back to the US and re-selling it in America. That result did not come easily. It took 70 pages of arguments and counterarguments, opinions for the court, concurring and dissenting, but now we know.
This was neither the first nor the last case to creep up to the high court on the back of a global economy. Other questions have already arisen from globalization. At a time when companies are technologically integrated but physically spread out globally, when is a company integrated enough to be taxed as a single entity (as a “unitary business,” in legal lingo)? When goods are shipped seamlessly with both international and domestic segments, but different laws apply to international transport and domestic rail transport, what law applies? Do American employees of US companies have the same rights abroad as if they worked in America, or do local rules take over? (Congress answered that one in favor of US law by making it explicit in the Civil Rights Act of 1991.)
Wherever the wind may blow from, a skillful navigator is ever more needed as legal waters flow the world over.