HP Launched Delayed DRM Time Bomb To Disable Competing Printer Cartridges

from the innovation! dept

For decades now, consumers have been lured into a sour deal: pay for a relatively inexpensive printer, then spend a lifetime paying an arm and a leg for viciously overpriced printer cartridges. As most have learned first-hand, any attempt to disrupt this obnoxious paradigm via third-party printer cartridges has been met with a swift DRM roundhouse kick to the solar plexus. In fact if there’s an area where the printer industry actually innovates, it’s most frequently in finding new, creative and obnoxious methods of preventing cartridge competition.

Hoping to bring this parade of awfulness to its customers at scale, HP this week unearthed the atomic bomb of printer cartridge shenanigans. HP Printer owners collectively discovered on September 13 that their printers would no longer even accept budget cartridges. Why? A firmware update pushed by the company effectively prevented HP printers from even detecting alternative cartridges, resulting in HP printer owners getting messages about a “cartridge problem,” or errors stating “one or more cartridges are missing or damaged,” or that the user was using an “older generation cartridge.”

As Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing notes, this behavior is simply par for the course, with Lexmark engaging in similar behavior back in 2003. By embedding an “I am empty” bit in their cartridges, they were similarly able to ensure that users couldn’t use third-party cartridges or they’d be told the cartridge lacked ink. Lexmark leaned heavily on Section 1201 of the DMCA to support its behavior, a tactic HP is likely to mirror but evolve:

“Lexmark invoked Section 1201 of the DMCA, which makes it a criminal and civil offense to bypass an “effective means of access control” for a copyrighted work. The DC Circuit court asked Lexmark which copyrighted work was being protected by its access control, and it argued that the checking routine itself was copyrighted, as well as the “Empty” bit. The court found that the DMCA could only be invoked where there was a copyrighted work apart from the access control, and that a single bit didn’t qualify as a copyrightable work. Lexmark lost.”

In this case, HP’s DRM time bomb firmware update was apparently deployed back in March, but HP didn’t activate the “improvement” until this month. And as is usually the case in this space, HP isn’t saying much outside of a misleading quote proclaiming the company was simply protecting its “innovations” and intellectual property:

“HP said such updates were rolled out “periodically” but did not comment on the timing of the last instalment.

“The purpose of this update is to protect HP’s innovations and intellectual property,” it said in a statement.”

But rejoice! HP claims that users can still refill cartridges, as long as those cartridges contain an HP-approved security chip:

“These printers will continue to work with refilled or remanufactured cartridges with an original HP security chip. Other cartridges may not function.”

Well, at least until HP figures out a way to DRM the printer fluid itself, which surely can’t be too far along on the horizon.

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Companies: hp

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Comments on “HP Launched Delayed DRM Time Bomb To Disable Competing Printer Cartridges”

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Anonymous Coward says:

HP’s DRM time bomb firmware update was apparently deployed back in March, but HP didn’t activate the “improvement” until this month.

A sneaky trick to maximise the number of updates applied, as if it was immediately active, the news would result in many people refusing the update so they could continue to use third party cartridges.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anyone or anything.

But the plans were on display..

It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of The Leopard

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

If it is in those terms, then HP may have legally shot itself in the foot.

There’s this thing in contract law called a ‘materially adverse change’ — basically, the idea goes that if the contract you are bound to is changed in a way that would have caused you to have rejected the product entirely if that contract term had been part of the deal when you signed the contract, then it forms an escape clause for the contract.

Normally, this applies to escaping from contracts without an Early Termination Fee, but in this case we’re talking about an ongoing licensing contract for a physical product, so it might be possible to return the printer for a refund due to this DRM stunt.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Those EULAs usually contain language along the lines of “software updates may change the functionality of the product”, and there’s probably language along the lines of “this product is only guaranteed to work with genuine HP cartridges” or something (it’s a long time since I’ve owned a printer at home, so I can’t say for sure what the modern wording is).

At a guess, they’ve covered themselves for this eventuality, but we’ll probably not know until there’s a class action suit to test it out. One of the problems with this kind of thing is that companies are happy to screw over their own customers with DRM until they fight back decisively.

Anonymous Coward says:

I noticed this on a customer’s HP printer recently. It popped up with a message saying the cartridge was counterfeit/empty, but it was a full cartridge. It was a color printer, so the message popped up on every cartridge (Black, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow). It finally did let the customer print after going through the Continues, but the funny thing was, I think it WAS an HP cartridge. Maybe one of the older ones, but it was HP.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

One of the fun things about DRM is that, like most software, it’s not 100% flawless. So, people who have legally bought the specified items may still get screwed over. Sometimes this is actually by design, though in this case it’s probably more like a programming flaw, dodgy physical connection, etc. Still, that’s another reason to reject anything DRM infected outright if you can.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Never mind the DRM, all the insanely numerous megabytes of “drivers” are pretty bad to begin with. You can install brand new OEM cartridges and the damn things will still claim they are empty. You can even go through the various hidden steps for correcting this which an archaeologist might find on a vendor site if lucky, and try them 10 times to no effect.

JBDragon (profile) says:

If I was going to get a inkjet again, I’d get one of the Epson ones that don’t use a cartridge, you fill it with a bottle of ink I guess and it lasts a long time. I destroyed a couple Epson printers with aftermarket ink. The first time I tried refilling the cartridges and resetting the chip on it to show full. It never printed good after that. The next one I just tried using after market ink cartridges and that ended up destroying that printer. The last one, I still have but haven’t used in quite some time. Not since going laser, it has 6 cartridges and it seemed like I was always replacing those things. They were not that large, but at about $12 each and there’s 6 of them, and I would only install Epson ones, it was pretty costly.

My Brother Laser Printer I have now, there’s ZERO copy protection. There’s no chip. There’s a mechanical dial on the toner cartridge on the normal FULL ones. The Trial one that comes with the printer doesn’t have it. But going aftermarket, you can get a cheap kit and turn that Trail toner unit into a full unit by swapping a few parts. This is also how you reset it, buy resetting the dial. Pull the plug, dump out any old toner that’s left, and fill it up with the new aftermarket toner. It’s toner designed for that Laser. It’s simple to pop the plug and fill up, reset and away you go. Also since the Toner and the drum are 2 pieces that snap together, it’s much cheaper in you have to replace one or the other at some point. It’s not a whole big all in one unit.

The thing warms up fast and is printing away perfectly. It can sit for days on end and the first sheet that comes out is perfect. Color I can live without. If I want to print out some color photo’s, I can just go to Costco online, and sent my pictures there to be printed out and then go pick them up locally all done and I think with better results and flexibility.

A Laser is really the only way to go these days. They’re cheap enough now and not having to deal with Ink cartridges and head cleaning and always swapping cartridges makes it well worth it. Most of them also have CHIPS!!! So now you’re having to get something to reset those. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that.

Skeeter says:

Re: Re:

About 3-years ago, I was about to (yet again) replace my ‘yearly failing’ HP deskjet, and thought ‘hey, for $50, why not try another brand instead?’. With that, I purchased a Canon Pixma IP2820 (entry-level deskjet) for about $40. The ink was about $5 per black or color cartridge cheaper to boot. It’s been 3 years now, I’ve NEVER been harassed by the driver software, it’s on a home network running both Windows and Linux, and works perfectly when shared between them all. It will consume factory cartridges, refills, even generics – and never mutter a single complaint.

By far, it is the best deskjet I’ve ever owned. If you want a good printer, I’d recommend to anyone ‘go with Canon first’, with the Pixma models being a great choice. I forgot about HP the moment I realized years ago that they’re buying their ink for $40 a 55-gallon barrel, and selling it for over $9,000 for the same quantity, while making consumers jump through hoops to purchase their ‘rip off profit line’. It’s one thing to compete, it’s another thing to commit strong-arm-robbery and try to legally sanction it with monopolistic actions hidden beneath DMCA or any other law.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I have the exact opposite experience with a Pixma. And when it is claiming the cartridges are empty, the scanner won’t even work. And the ink is outrageous. Unfortunately it also has color, which it demands or complains about. And it prints like crap with brand new OEM cartridges that no amount of alignment and tweaking will fix. Also unfortunately, you just can’t keep a full color cartridge in it to keep it happy because they dry out rather rapidly…

DannyB (profile) says:

Doesn't HP have a right to protect its customers?

Can’t HP protect customers from the dangers of competition?

If customers had a choice, they would incur the effort to make a choice of which vendor’s ink to purchase. HP is trying saving customers from a competitive market to keep things simple.

You will buy only our ink, and you will pay whatever outrageous price we tell you.

Skeeter says:

Re: Doesn't HP have a right to protect its customers?

Maybe someone will find the time and resilience to take them to court, arguing this is a blatant monopolistic action that is allowed in no other manufactured product (picture if Ford said you MUST buy motor oil or tires from their dealers ONLY?!) Car companies can’t do this with ‘expendable items’, nor can most other manufacturers; why is it that the most egregious violations of established Commerce Laws exist in the IT and related support industries?

Roger Strong (profile) says:

I’ve used this sort of greed to my advantage. I needed a flatbed scanner, and the cheapest ones were $200.

So I bought a printer/scanner for $30. Of course they expected my to buy new cartridges to replace the partially-filled ones that come with the printer. And a $30 USB cable (available elsewhere for $2.) And an extended warranty. I passed on all three. I got a perfectly good flatbed scanner for $30.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“I got a perfectly good flatbed scanner for $30.”

Some years ago we bought a Brother All-in-one Printer/Scanner/Fax but when the print cartridge was empty NONE of the buttons or other functions worked. I didn’t find any way to defeat it. After that we have never purchased another Brother device.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

We went to back to standalone fax after that but no longer have a fax machine, it was some years ago.. Someone here has a Canon ImageClass D420 as a personal (laser) printer which scans fine over USB (Win 7) and which has been constantly complaining for about a year about the empty toner cartridge. (Complaining = front panel message and angry blinking red LED)

Arachne says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Got a review copy of a Canon MFC that had a piece of paper in it stating that putting a no name cartridge in it would cause the printer to die. I gave it one star only because I couldn’t give it no stars. It also went to Goodwill as soon as I posted my review.

Right now I have an Epson 7520 MFC (since 2012) that is the best Fax I have ever had. Just a shame it takes up so much space.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Last couple of printers I bought, I did something similar. Lexmark printers were available for around £25-30, cartridges ran around £30-40. I had a couple of times where I needed to print, I just bought the newer model printer rather than buy an ink cartridge.

Now, of course the supplied cartridge wasn’t a full cartridge, but I needed to print so infrequently the nearly empty cartridge usually had dried ink over the nozzles. I stopped doing this when I had a decent enough job that I could get away with printing from work, and it’s been many years since I’ve had a printer at home (or even a scanner, I use my phone for that nowadays).

But, I can’t help but wonder how much in the way of money & resources Lexmark wasted by me doing that compared to if they had merely priced the ink cartridges lower. I obviously wouldn’t have bothered with the new printers if the cartridges were, say, £10-15.

Anonymous Coward says:

Printer companies vs. their customers

According to a client I have had who formerly wrote code for HP’s printer division, there’s another sneaky thing that printer companies do. He told me HP regularly harvests copies of the documents that have been printed on your device. If you have a printer that stores documents after they have been printed, those documents are periodically uploaded to HP servers. He states it is done supposedly for “quality control”, but given that a large number of documents are copied on a regular basis from every customer, it’s hard to argue that this document collection is only about quality. He believes a more plausible explanation is that the content is shared with HP’s marketing department. He also believes this is a widespread practice in the printing industry, and not just limited to HP.
His recommendation: Use your firewall to prevent your printers from sending or receiving traffic to the internet outside of your LAN. Implementing this would also prevent manufacturers from remotely installing firmware “upgrades” that would remove your ability to use 3rd party cartridges.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

That remains to be seen. Customers have put up with much worse abuses than this from other companies and continued to buy their products. Vendor lock-in is a real thing and it can be awfully difficult to overcome.

I’d like to see HP’s bottom line take a hit over this, but I don’t know how likely that actually is.

What I’m describing is something else, something that I anticipate becoming a growing problem in the coming years: publishers pushing software “updates” — some even labeled as “security updates” — that adversely impact their product’s functionality. It’s already common in consoles and phones, of course, where security vulnerabilities are frequently exploited for purposes of rooting, jailbreaking, etc. But it’s starting to creep its way into desktops and peripherals.

This is a problem. Because when end users stop trusting security updates, legitimate security vulnerabilities are going to go unpatched.

Anonymous Coward says:

While I don’t agree with HP, it is something that will make IT work a bit easier. I have had staff buy the cheapest ink possible and then complain when their printer stops working. Generally I just slap some genuine manufacturer ink in the printer and it works fine. They don’t like that they spent $20 for a full set of some no name brand ink and then having to pay another $50 each cartridge for genuine ink. I did finally find an alternative ink for some of our older HP plotters that has worked every time so far. Only used 12 cartridges from them but normally it is 1 in 4 that fails after the first couple prints from a cheap brand.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“it is something that will make IT work a bit easier”

No it won’t. It just means that instead of explaining to customers that the cheap brand they bought is shoddy, you now have to explain to them that HP deliberately stopped them from using a cheaper product. You’ll still get the abuse, and you’ll probably get more work incoming from people who’ve tried to “fix” the product themselves using whatever random outdated hints they found online. People will still try to save the $50 purchase, and you’ll get the brunt of it when they fail.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’ve switched to the ink tank approach. Been happy for years now. I thought about the laser alternative but I want the colors and a color laser printer is too goddamn expensive considering the printer itself and the spare color cartridges. And I’m kind of skeptical they won’t be blocking 3rd party refills on laser printers too so the ink tank route worked wonders.

Toestubber (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The “empty cartridge means scanner is disabled” and “empty color cartridge means no printing from black cartridge” scams were the last straw for me.

After dealing with such nonsense for years, I vowed to simply never buy another printer. Period. I refuse to devote more time and money to these scumbags. For my printing needs, it’s easier (and way cheaper in the long run) to carry a thumb drive over to the local copy shop. Could not be happier with my decision.

Anonymous Coward says:

If you want an over all better printer look into the Xerox Solid ink printers. I used one for years and loved it. They are more like a color laser, not cheap up front but if you print a lot they are a way better deal. Just NEVER move the printer until you have powered it off and let it cool.


OldGeezer (profile) says:

I bought a Xerox Phaser 6010N. It came with the usual starter toner cartridges. Considering how little I use my printer these partial cartridges would probably last a long time. I just thought I would see what replacements cost and was shocked. I paid $140 for the printer but it would be $220 to replace all 4 cartridges from Xerox. I found a complete compatible pack with an extra black for $30 on Amazon. I tried them and they show up as genuine in the diag when I turn it on. I figured they were either refills or bootleg. In case they get sued and put out of business by Xerox I bought 3 more sets. I checked my firewall and the only settings I found for printing were for home network sharing. I checked the Xerox web site and the only firmware download was from 2012. The only software utility says it can’t find a printer. The user manual has nothing about any updates. Is there still some way they could force some firmware update on me that would disable these cheap replacements? I get updates for devices like my video card with Windows update but they are always optional.

Anonymous Coward says:

HP’s a dead company anyway. They’ve sold off their PC and peripheral divisions.

The ‘PC’ side is being shut down. The printer business has long been farmed out to others and that too is being terminated in February (though support will continue for some printers through to 2020).

HP has debts of over $35 billion and no way to pay it back (percentage of users with printers shrinks year on year).

Why would ANYONE want to buy a printer where if HP suddenly and spectacularly collapses, even the ‘end of life to 2020’ support disappears along with DRM cartridge manufactuer?

John85851 (profile) says:

Gouging or quality control?

I’m going to play the devil’s advocate here:

Suppose this issue happened in other industries: say you bought a BMW and the battery dies. You go to your local auto supply store and see a Ford battery for $50, which the clerk assures you that it’s compatible with your BMW. Congratulations! You just saved money by not buying the official battery from the BMW dealership for $200. We all know how car dealerships like to gouge people, especially the higher-end ones like BMW!
Except the battery from the supply store doesn’t quite fit, so you have to hammer it in place… then it runs out of a charge after 3 months. Then you complain to BMW that they made a crappy car that won’t take Ford batteries.

So for argument’s sake, let’s assume this happened to HP: customers would use cheap-brand ink, the printer would fail, and then they’d complain to HP or return the printer to the store (in which case, the store would return it to HP). The printer works perfectly, except for the fact that the nozzles can’t handle the cheap quality ink.

And here’s another example: I have a LEGO set and I have a knock-off-brand set of bricks. The LEGO set was $24.95, which seemed a tad expensive for the content. The knock-off brand was $9.95 for a larger set with more pieces.
However, after building each set, I noticed the LEGO bricks are “stickier”, firmer, and seem to hold together better. The knock-off brand bricks seems looser, as if they didn’t quite get the measurements right or they used poorer-quality plastic.
Most of the time, a cheaper price usually means a cheaper quality product.

So is this really a case of HP trying to gouge everyone or are they trying to maintain quality control?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Gouging or quality control?

“Except the battery from the supply store doesn’t quite fit, so you have to hammer it in place… then it runs out of a charge after 3 months. Then you complain to BMW that they made a crappy car that won’t take Ford batteries.”

Then, you’re politely either informed that you’ve invalidated your warranty by being an idiot and taking a hammer to the car or told that since they only guarantee their own parts, they should either take it back to the guy who told them it would fit or pay a premium for a proper repair and battery.

This isn’t something new, it happens all the time.

“So is this really a case of HP trying to gouge everyone or are they trying to maintain quality control?”

Irrelevant distraction. In a free market, the consumer can decide what they buy, what they use and how to use it. HP are attempting a monopoly lock-in, where they decide all of those things.

QC is important, but it’s ultimately just an excuse. Yes, LEGO and knock-offs differ in quality, but it’s the customer’s choice. The difference can even help, as since customers like yourself notice the difference clearly, they choose to pay the premium next time. But it’s their choice.

Like all manufacturers, HP will always get complaints for things that aren’t their fault. The customer can’t work out how to install or use it properly, they use crappy paper that gets stuck more often, they complain because it’s somehow not their fault the cable got unplugged or it got knocked off a table, etc. They swallow that as part of their operating costs, as they should.

What they should not get to do is force everybody to only have themselves as the choice. If I want to use cheap knock-off ink and take the risk, I should have that choice. Not be forced to pay a company a premium for overpriced product just because they deemed it right that I have no other option.

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