How a Supreme Court Ruling on Printer Ink Bolstered Your Right to Repair

THERE'S A REASON everyone hates printers. They break, jam, and always run out of cyan ink—which, inexplicably, also breaks them. Even when they work, toner costs so much you have to give up avocado toast for a month to buy more. As Matthew Inman, one of the great poets of his time, famously said: "Either printer ink is made from unicorn blood or we're all getting screwed."

Impression Products wanted to make toner a bit cheaper by refilling Lexmark printer cartridges. Lexmark of course hated that and sued. The fight dragged on for years, and made it all the way to the US Supreme Court. This week, the highest court in the land ruled against Lexmark. You may consider this an insignificant tussle over printer toner, but this important ruling clears the way for small businesses to fix your stuff—even without the manufacturer's permission.

As an added bonus, it should also help bring printer cartridge costs down. Good news for those of you who still print out Supreme Court decisions.

Impression v. Lexmark

Lexmark sells two kinds of cartridges: an expensive, reusable model; and a less expensive, single-use one. The only mechanical difference? The cheap cartridge features a chip that disables the damn thing once you refill it. Lexmark also made consumers sign a "post-sale restriction" contract stipulating that only Lexmark could collect, refill, and resell them.

Of course, people found a way around those constraints. Third-party companies collected cartridges and disabled the chip. Impression Products, a small, family-run office supply company in West Virginia, started selling refilled cartridges for less than Lexmark charged. Lexmark sued for patent infringement in 2013. Impressions CEO Eric Smith was baffled by the letters he received from Lexmark's attorneys. The way he saw it, his company was simply selling refurbished printer cartridges, and Lexmark had no right to control cartridges after selling them.

Read the rest on Wired.com.

As originally published in WIRED June 1, 2017.