How the New Supreme Court Could Change the Way You Do Business

Last Updated Oct 4, 2010 2:19 PM EDT

Welcome to First Monday, the day when the new U.S. Supreme Court begins its term. This edition of the Court is marked by the absence of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens and the addition of Harvard's Elena Kagan.

Two cases this term have the potential to remake a bit of the business landscape, and you should be paying attention. Several other business-related cases are also worth noting:

Costco Wholesale Corp. v. Omega S.A.
If you are a reseller, you want to keep an eye on this case. The question in play is whether Omega can prevent Costco from reselling Omega watches made in another country, so-called gray market sales, under the Copyright Act. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found for Omega, ruling that when the first sale happens abroad, copyright claims can be used to bar a resale. Depending on how broadly the Supremes construe the Copyright Act, the result could have a large impact on resellers such as eBay, the huge IT gray market, and even on Netflix and other DVD rental companies, according to legal eagles.

FCC v. AT&T
Can corporations claim personal privacy in order to prevent releasing of information requested under Freedom of Information filings? The telecommunication giant wants to keep under cover information about its participation in the federal E-Rate program, used to provide schools and libraries more Internet access. The information had been requested by a trade group representing some AT&T competitors.

According to Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, the AT&T case continues the court's testing of boundaries around corporate power. Last year, the court removed some campaign spending limits imposed on businesses, finding that U.S. corporations have First Amendment free-speech rights. "Will the Roberts Court continue a trend in which they've extended corporate power in the face of federal legislation that has sought to limit or restrict federal power?" Feldman asks the Harvard Gazette.

Other cases to note:
Thompson v. North American Stainless
Are the families of corporate whistle blowers extended legal protections against reprisals? North American Stainless fired Eric Thompson after learning that Thompson's fiancee and co-worker lodged a sex discrimination complaint against the firm. She was protected, he was not.

AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion
AT&T is back on the docket in this dispute with unhappy customers over its "free phone" program -- customers were charged sales tax based on the value of the "free" phone. The question, however, is whether the dispute cab be heard as a class action court case (Vincent and Liza Concepcion's argument) or in arbitration (AT&T's position). The Concepcions agreed to waive class action proceedings in favor of arbitration when they signed the AT&T user agreement. Lower courts found AT&T's class action waiver to be "unconscionable," denying AT&T's motion to force arbitration.

How about you? Do you have your eye on a particular court case this year?

(Image by Flickr user Laura Padgett, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.