How a Supreme Court ruling on printer cartridges changes what it means to buy almost anything
By Brian Fung
May 31 2017
Last week, the Supreme Court dealt a major blow to corporations that try to use patent law as a weapon against other firms, saying that companies can only be sued for patent infringement in the places they actually do business.
Now, the Court has ruled again along those same lines, handing a victory to consumer groups in a case about printer cartridges — or more specifically, tonercartridges, the kind used by laser printers. The case has huge implications for the way we think about technology ownership in America, and your rights as a user. Here’s what you need to know.
What’s this case all about?
The case is called Impression Products v. Lexmark. Lexmark does a lot of business with corporate customers, so if you work in an office, you might know the name from seeing it on your printers there. Those machines rely on toner cartridges, which must be changed every so often when they run out, just like ink cartridges in your home printer. And just like home printing, laser printing hinges on a razor-and-blades business model where much of the manufacturer’s income depends on the reliable sale of new toner cartridges.
To protect its business model, Lexmark basically did some things that made it harder for people to get cheap, used cartridges on the secondhand market. Those tactics were designed to make it more likely for customers to choose Lexmark’s own cartridges, according to the Court. While there’s nothing specifically illegal about this, the Court said, a company such as Lexmark can’t try to use patent law to stop other companies, such as Impression, from reselling its old cartridges.
What did Impression do, exactly?
Companies like Impression make money by buying up old toner cartridges, refilling them with more toner and then selling them at a lower price than what Lexmark charges.
Lexmark argued that by refurbishing and reselling its cartridges without permission and outside the terms of Lexmark’s service agreement with end-users, Impression was violating the patent that Lexmark held on the cartridges. Essentially, Lexmark was saying that its patent rights extended beyond the initial sale of the cartridge to cover even future resales.
So what’s the big deal?
The practical question is how much Lexmark or any other company can control what you do with the things you buy. This debate isn’t limited to printer cartridges. If you buy a car, how do you know you really own it? What does ownership actually entitle you to do with your property, anyway?
These issues fit into a broader fight over what some experts call the “right to tinker.” The thinking goes: If you buy something, you should be free to do whatever you want with it — sell it, modify it, even destroy it. But some companies, even car manufacturers, have sought to put limits on that freedom. They make arguments such as Lexmark’s, where handling a product in a way that potentially undermines the company’s business leads to an alleged violation of patent or copyright protections. In this view, the customer may think she owns the physical property outright, but she is still constrained by an invisible cage made of corporate intellectual property.