Legal Issues

by Mike Masnick

HP Tells Retailers They're Infringing Patents By Refilling Ink Cartridges

from the any-way-possible-to-stop-the-competition dept

The various makers of inkjet printers have been particularly nasty in trying to protect their market. As most of you know, they have a razor/razor blades model of doing business. They sell the printers cheap, and then load up on selling you expensive ink. The ink, you'll recall, costs more than expensive perfume, whiskey, or vintage champagne. Apparently, if you filled an Olympic-sized swimming pool with inkjet ink at retail prices, it would cost you $6 billion (yes, with a b). On top of that, there have been reports (disputed by the printer companies) that many of the ink cartridges are designed to "expire" before the ink is actually gone -- boosting revenue even more.

With that in mind, you can understand why the companies involved may pull out all the stops to prevent any competition in selling ink for their printers. A favorite of the companies is to use any and all forms of intellectual property laws to stop competitive sales. Lexmark was a big fan of using the DMCA to claim a competitor was violating copyright law. Luckily the courts slapped down that clear misuse of the DMCA (multiple times). So, without copyright law, how about trademark violations for those selling "unauthorized" printer products? However, in recent months, it's been patents that the printer firms have focused on. Epson went after a bunch of retailers who sold refilled ink cartridges claiming patent infringement, and successfully convinced some to stop. Now, it's HP's turn. The company already went after those who actually refill the cartridges, but now they've decided to go after big name retailers who will refill your cartridges for you. Specifically, they're targeting Walgreens and Office Max -- though, they say they're coming to an agreement. It's hard to see how anyone could get a patent on refilling an ink cartridge, but this is a clear example of simply trying to kill off any competition, rather than promote innovation.

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  1. identicon
    Tyshaun, 22 Jun 2006 @ 7:32am

    as usual, it seems that techDit commentors way too

    1) I agree, print cartridges are very overpriced
    2) I agree, the printer companies enforcing theirpricing models is a lot like extortion...

    That's where my agreement ends. Let's face facts, your average joe-schmo computer owner would rather slap down the high cost of buying a cartridge then to go through the perceived bother of refilling them themselves. Those who say HP and EPSONS businsess models are not sustainable have overlooked one minor details, their business models have been around for decades and they still rake in incredible profits. The ability to refill ink cartridges came out almost right after affordable inkjets, meaning that if in that 10-15 year period HP and Epson haven't gone bankrupt, what makes you think they will?

    I applaud techDirt readers for being idealistic and inventive in trying to break down monopolistic practices, but let's not confuse idealism with reality. Reality is that most people don't use their printers enough to mind paying a high price to replace cartridges (I buy maybe 2 black, and 1 color every year or so), and the printer companies know that. Their business model is actually really smart, give away the part that actually does cost money, but will last a long time (the printer), and bleed you dry on the stuff that's cheap to make and has a rather short shelf-life (ink).

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