Court Battle is Over More Than Printer Ink

Printer makers protect profits over consumer choice

I have an inkjet printer at home that I rarely use. The things always out of ink, and when I go to my local office supply superstore to buy cartridges for it, Im always too dumbfounded by the cost of those little plastic boxes of ink to buy more than one at a time.

Usually, a customer whos dissatisfied with one vendor means opportunity for another. For instance:

Lexmark sells cheap printers and costly cartridges, with microchips to make sure that you and I dont step outside the loop, and a firm called Static Control Components manufactures a chip for circumventing Lexmarks electronic cartridge lock-in mechanisms.

Lately, though, whenever the words "electronic" and "circumvent" appear in the same a sentence, there are four other words that generally arent too far behind—Digital, Millennium, Copyright, Act.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Karl Forester granted Lexmark the preliminary injunction it sought under the DMCA, preventing SCC from selling its Smartek product—a chip that, when installed in certain Lexmark printers, enables the use of cheap, recycled cartridges that would not otherwise function.

More green ink

The cheap inkjet printer/costly ink cartridge system may frustrate the heck out of you and me, but printer makers like it just fine—these companies are looking for steady revenue streams, and fostering in their customers an ongoing dependence on costly cartridges seems like a good way to do it.

Of course, the scheme will only work as envisioned if customers cant easily switch to more realistically-priced cartridges, which is why companies like Lexmark build chips into their printers and cartridges to keep third-party vendors locked out and printer owners locked in.

In the complaint that it filed with the court, Lexmark describes the communication that passes between its printer and its cartridges as a "secret handshake," and explains that this secret handshake "protects consumers to ensure that they are using genuine Lexmark toner cartridges."

I wonder, though, what benefit Lexmark customers are supposed to derive from technologies like this one—if quality is an issue, if theres really a significant difference between the print quality of Lexmarks more costly cartridges and cheaper ones, then customers who recognize and require it will choose the Lexmark-branded product.

The bottom line is that Lexmark is pursuing this line of profit-protection because it can, and if it can, I suppose it must—unless Lexmarks DMCA-backed cartridge chicanery hurts its image enough to hurt sales. Anyway, its not as though Lexmark is the only firm to follow this tack: HP also builds countermeasures into its cartridges.

Instead, lets focus the bulk of our attention instead on the DMCA, and ask why weve given corporations the legal tools to exert such an unreasonable amount of control over the products that they distribute.

Copyrights and patents are intended to strike a balance between the need for creators and inventors to profit from their ideas and the need for society to access those ideas. If a firm wishes to produce a chip that absolutely cannot be reverse-engineered, the best way to achieve that level of control is not to release it to the public.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at