We all know that printer ink is one of the most expensive liquids you can buy. It can range from $13 to $75 an ounce. In other words, you could buy more than 750 gallons of gas for the cost of a gallon of ink.
You might replace one and then feel like you’re replacing it again in just a month, even if you don’t print that much. That’s $24 to $50 of ink that just seems to vanish in a flash.
For this reason, some enterprising companies want to make printer ink easier on the wallet by buying off spent cartridges and refilling them with fresh ink.
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A small family-run West Virginia company called Impression Products does precisely that with Lexmark cartridges. They collect old cartridges then resell the refilled cartridges at lower price points.
Naturally, Lexmark wants its customers to use only Lexmark cartridges. In 2013, Lexmark sued Impression for this practice, claiming that by refurbishing and reselling its cartridges without permission, Impression is violating Lexmark’s patent rights, which it believes extends beyond the sale of the product.
This week, the Supreme Court finally handed down its ruling in the Impression Products v. Lexmark case. The decision may just have changed how we look at consumer product ownership, including the rights we have over everything we purchase, not just printer cartridges.
Patent rights end after initial sale
The Supreme Courts ruled in favor of Impression Products stating that a company’s patent rights end after the initial sale of a product. In other words, customers can do whatever they want with things they buy without the threat of patent lawsuits.
This means that if done otherwise, every manufacturing company can threaten anyone with a patent lawsuit after a sale, repair shops and resellers may have a hard time sustaining their businesses for fear of litigation. If this is allowed, it can have severe economic consequences.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., cited a brilliantly used car analogy to explain the decision in clearer terms:
“Take a shop that restores and sells used cars. The business works because the shop can rest assured that, so long as those bringing in the cars own them, the shop is free to repair and resell those vehicles. That smooth flow of commerce would sputter if companies that make the thousands of parts that go into a vehicle could keep their patent rights after the first sale.”
Why does this matter?
Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, says that when you buy something, it’s yours and yours alone.
Going beyond refurbished printer cartridges, this ruling safeguards our “right to tinker” and it prevents patent holders from dictating how we can repair, modify, reuse or even destroy products that we have purchased. When you buy something, you own it. And you have a right to tinker with it, and even resell it.
Just like people who rebuild and sell classic cars, boats, motorcycles, and anything else. And while Lexmark may not like the ruling, it’s a good one for America.
Of course, corporations will still try and protect their business models via other means such as end user agreements and post-sale contracts but at least, a patent lawsuit is one fewer thing we have to worry about.