Epson 'Security Update' Bricks Third-Party Ink Refills, Opens Up Possibility Of A Competitive Trades Investigation

from the nice-work,-jackasses dept

It's no secret the printer business relies on hefty ink refill markups. The printers are disposable, often cheaper than the ink they come packaged with. But customers aren't usually willing to toss out a printer when it runs out of ink, even if refilling it costs more than replacing it.

And good for them! I mean, at least in an environmental sense. Let's not toss a bunch more non-decomposables into the nearest landfill the moment they refuse do anything until their inkwells are filled. But this does nothing for consumers, forcing them to become unwilling adherents to the sunk cost fallacy, especially after they've paid for a couple of ink refills.

Printer companies know their system is ripoff. They know their customers know it's a ripoff. That's why they engage in shady tactics to ensure this steady stream of revenue doesn't dry up. For years, third parties have offered compatible ink refills. And for years, printer companies have been lying to customers to lock these competitors out of the market.

A couple of years back, HP pushed out a firmware update that made it impossible to use third-party refills. It didn't tell customers the update would do this. It just sent out the DRMbomb and triggered it remotely, saying things about "security" and "protecting customers," even as it eliminated their refill options.

Now, Epson has been caught doing the same thing. Cory Doctorow, writing for the EFF, says an EFF fan spotted the firmware update's refill-bricking capabilities.

[I]n late 2016 or early 2017, Epson started sending deceptive updates to many of its printers. Just like HP, Epson disguised these updates as routine software improvements, when really they were poison pills, designed to downgrade printers so they could only work with Epson's expensive ink systems.

EFF found out about this thanks to an eagle-eyed supporter in Texas, and we've taken the step of alerting the Texas Attorney General's office about the many Texas statutes Epson's behavior may violate. If you're in another state and had a similar experience with your Epson printer, please get in touch.

The last touch is nice. This isn't just a warning about printer company tactics. It's an actual complaint, made to a government authority, about deceptive tactics being deployed by printer companies.

The problem is deeper than simply screwing customers out of cheaper ink options. Sending out feature-crippling firmware under the guise of "security updates" just teaches customers to distrust updates. And this is something consumers can't afford. The NSA-powered ransomware deployed by malicious hackers targeted unpatched hardware and software. When a company tells you it's making its product more secure, but is really doing nothing more than making your purchased product more worthless, it encourages customers to steer clear of recommended updates, even if those might patch vulnerabilities that could be exploited by criminals and state-sponsored hackers.

Then there's the part the Texas AG might be more concerned with: the artificial restriction of competition through deceptively-portrayed firmware updates. There may be violations of actual laws at play here, both in the deception and the anti-competitive practices. Violating the customers' trust may result in reputational damage. An investigation into Epson's business practices -- as is encouraged by the EFF's letter [PDF] -- may result in the loss of something companies find far more valuable than the trust of their customers: actual money.

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  • icon
    James Burkhardt (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 9:43am

    They might want to remember the class action Sony faced when it patched out the OtherOS feature of the PS3 - by depriving expected functionality of the Playstation after purchase it opened itself up to actual tort claims as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      kallethen, 15 Oct 2018 @ 10:38am


      I think that might be a different sort of situation though. The reason behind that claim was that OtherOS was an explicitly advertised feature. Some people bought the PS3 for that specific reason.

      I doubt printer manufacturers advertise that you can use third-party ink/toner for their printers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 11:42am

    This is why I stopped buying inkjet printers back in the 90's -- for quick prints, a laserjet is higher quality and won't smudge/run, and for glossy color prints, I can get next-day delivery online from a print shop who always uses high quality inks and paper -- for WAY less than I'd spend on an inkjet system.

    Let's hope we can do more with the government complaints as we see future firmware/software hobbling of semi-useful devices though. Inkjet technology had some really great possibilities back in the day, but I could see the writing on the wall with Lexmark.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 15 Oct 2018 @ 11:49am


    and lost.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bruce C., 15 Oct 2018 @ 2:37pm

    >When a company tells you it's making its product more secure, but is really doing nothing more than making your purchased product more worthless...

    But it DOES make the product more secure...for the company, not for you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2018 @ 3:45pm

    This happened with my latest HP Inkjet "security firmware" update. It broke non-HP ink (again).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jamie, 27 Oct 2018 @ 4:17pm

    Years ago one of my brothers said he distrusted updates, claiming they often seemed to be downgrades.

    It seems he was right. Apple, printer manufacturers and others have been caught doing this.

    A really stupid, short sighted thing to do - it's really not a good idea to convince people that updates might be downgrades or poison pills.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    John, 28 Oct 2018 @ 6:50pm

    This is why...

    ...I just chunked my Epson inkjet printer in the trash. I got a couple of good years out of it, but they're not getting another penny out of me. I bought some 3rd party ink off of Amazon with reviews saying that they would work, but my printer refused to take them (now I know why). I bought an inexpensive Brother laser printer that works great, and I will never spend another dime on anything made by Epson. They lost my business, and I will tell everyone I know to stay away from their products.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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