Right-to-Refill: How the Lexmark Case Changed the Face of Patent Rights

By now, everyone is probably aware that I love technology. I think progress is swell and dandy, and that I welcome our robotic overlords. What you probably don’t know is that there is one piece of technology that I have declared my Eternal Nemesis: office printers. When I try to print things, if the printer’s not jammed, it’s “offline,” even though it’s clearly turned on and connected to the ethernet! And don’t get me started on toner (too late, I’m getting started on toner).

Look at them, sitting there so smugly. This is the face of evil, I tell you. Evil.

For a very long time, toner and ink cartridges have been expensive. A quick glance at Amazon reveals prices that range from $50 to $150. Now, luckily, many of them were on sale, so it could be worse, but replacing printer ink has been a strain on many people’s wallets for some time now. Some companies make it easy to return used cartridges for recycling, but you still have to buy a new cartridge to replace the old one.

Luckily, all that is about to change.

Last week, in a near unanimous decision, the Supreme Court declared that once someone has purchased a product, the manufacturer no longer holds patent rights. What this means is that printer companies cannot prevent consumers from reselling, refilling, or otherwise modifying ink or toner cartridges once they’ve been depleted.

Now, you may think that this is a no-brainer, since people modify the heck out of cars, roombas, and many other household appliances, and it’s never been a problem before. But Lexmark, one of the leading printer companies, has been fighting since the early 2000s to make it illegal to refill and resell their cartridges by enforcing its patent rights, which would enable them to maintain a monopoly on the cartridges.

However, citing cars as a perfect example, the Supreme Court judges ruled that once a product is in the consumer’s hands, any control a company might have had over the product is forfeit. This is great, because it’ll bring some competition to an otherwise cornered market, but it’s not just the world of office supplies that will feel the effects of this case.

The second half of Lexmark’s case covered whether or not international sales would exhaust a company’s patent rights. Here, the Supreme Court once again ruled against Lexmark; sales made internationally exhaust the patent rights, just the same as sales made domestically. This makes pharmaceutical companies in particular pretty unhappy, as it’s much cheaper to buy brand name drugs across the border in Mexico and Canada than it is here in the good old U.S. of A.

Adding knives is one of the most common (and deadliest) modifications made to a roomba.

This is only one victory in an ongoing, complicated debate about ownership. In recent years, many software services have moved from being a one time purchase to subscription model; when I was a kid, Microsoft Word simply came as part of a computer, there was no need to spend any extra money on it. Now, you have to buy a license, and you have to keep paying for it every year. The same goes for many Internet of Things devices as well; in addition to buying the gadget, you have to pay for a subscription to a service. We saw this backfire spectacularly just last year, when Google discontinued service to the Revolv smart home device, leaving unhappy customers with a very expensive paperweight.

And what about music, video, and video game files? You paid for them, so shouldn’t you have the right to “tinker” with them too? What about redistribution? Digital piracy has been a hot-button topic for a long time now, and it’s not likely to go away.

The “Piracy, It’s a Crime” was an anti-piracy campaign launched by the Motion Picture Association in the early 2000s. It… hasn’t exactly been all that successful.

Unless, of course, games become cheaper, and therefore easier to purchase, which may happen as a result of the court’s ruling. However, other analysts fear that companies will go in the other direction, making games (and toner cartridges) more expensive to make up for the loss of sales.

Unfortunately, while the court’s ruling is a major step forward for ownership rights, it doesn’t completely cover everything. Many companies will still find ways to protect their copyrights, such as through end user license agreements, Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies, and well, straight up making their hardware impossible to disassemble. Apple has always been notorious for their proprietary hardware, making it hard for third-party companies to develop competitively cheap accessories, but in recent years, they’ve gone one step further.

And they’re not alone. An increasing amount of devices are either irreparable or unrecyclable due to their construction. John Deere makes it so that tractor owners cannot use the software that runs their equipment, making their equipment impossible to repair. As a result, many farmers have taken to using hacked software in order to get the authorization they need to fix their tractors.

So what can we expect from the future? Cheaper products and fiercer competition, or big time monopolies doubling down on costs and guarding their product manuals like a dragon with their horde? It’s hard to say, but I’m willing to bet it’ll be a mix of both. Millennials are killing every other capitalistic concept out there, so might as well kill copyright law while we’re at it.

2017-07-09T13:19:36-04:00June 8th, 2017|Business Practices, Current Technology|

About the Author:

Andrew is a technical writer for Deep Core Data. He has been writing creatively for 10 years, and has a strong background in graphic design. He enjoys reading blogs about the quirks and foibles of technology, gadgetry, and writing tips.

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