Print News: Judge Rules on Lexmark Remanufactured Ink Court Case
Recently a seven year court battle between Lexmark
and a North Carolina-based company that enables compatible ink cartridges reached its final ruling. In December 2002, Lexmark sued Static Control Components for infringing on a computer program contained in its ink cartridges that made the printer inoperable, if it were found to be operating through ink cartridges refilled by companies other than Lexmark itself. Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled that their circumvention of Lexmark’s chip does not violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, meaning that the manufacturer may continue its activities.
The case originated in part because of the Lexmark Return Program: an initiative where consumers who sent their emptied cartridges, like the Lexmark 28A
, back to Lexmark, instead of third-party businesses, received a substantial discount on future purchases. Supplementing this program with consumers, Lexmark programmed their ink cartridges to become inoperable if the ink cartridge refill occurred outside Lexmark’s premises. The program undercut the remanufacturing industry, which depends on empty cartridges, and resulted in fewer Lexmark cartridges getting recycled.
Static Control Components, a business that doesn’t itself sell compatible ink cartridges, but makes microchips for the remanufacturing industry, responded to Lexmark with the production of a ‘Smartek’ program that nullifies Lexmark’s restrictions. The chip included its own version of Lexmark’s ‘Toner Loading Program’. The company began shipping its microchip in 2002.
Lexmark’s lawsuit against the company was filed on the premise that the North Carolina-company had copied its ‘Toner Loading Program,’ and had violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Introduced in May 2001, this legislation was meant to protect the intellectual property of persons creating in a primarily digital medium. It is notable that Lexmark could not sue them for countermanding an initiative designed to undercut its competitors in the remanufacturing circuit, since this would violate competition laws. Lexmark’s attempts to prevent compatible ink cartridges from being produced through another manufacturers chip amounts to the same thing.
After a prolonged court battle extending not only from the Federal Court of Kentucky but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, it has now been ruled that Lexmark’s ‘Toner Loading Program’ does not amount to copyright-able property. Rather, the DMCA was meant to protect creative expression in film and music mediums and cannot be easily applied to a computer program or printer cartridge. Today’s decision amounts to a victory for the remanufacturing industry, which has enjoyed a contentious relationship with major brands while recycling ink cartridges