Supreme Court Asserts Right to Repair
Impression Products developed a system to refill Lexmark printer cartridges, resulting in Lexmark suing the company, with the legal fight going all the way to the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has now ruled against Lexmark – a landmark case in the right to repair.
Lexmark sells two kinds of cartridges: an expensive, reusable model; and a less expensive, single-use one. The single-use model has a chip that disables the cartridge once it is refilled. Lexmark also requires consumers to sign a “post-sale restriction” contract stipulating that only Lexmark can collect, refill, and resell them.
However, 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.
This case is really about ownership rights, and whether a patent holder can dictate how you repair, modify, or reuse something you’ve purchased.
The Supreme Court considered the principle of patent exhaustion. This idea stipulates that a patent owner’s rights over a product should vanish once the patent owner sells the product to a consumer. By attaching a post-sale restriction to its single-use cartridge, Lexmark aimed to create a zombie patent that’s never exhausted. You may have bought that cartridge, but Lexmark still controls it.
The justices agreed 7-1 that Lexmark can’t do that. The court held that Lexmark exhausted its patent rights when it sold its cartridges “regardless of any restrictions the patentee purports to impose.”
Most consumer watchdog organizations roundly praised the decision. “Corporate restrictions on how products are used and resold are costly and onerous for consumers,” says Public Knowledge. “The decision today largely puts a stop to that practice, at least with respect to patent law.”
With the Supreme Court issuing a definitive ruling on patent exhaustion, expect manufacturers to turn to contract law – like end user licensing agreements – to enforce their will. John Deere, after losing a copyright law fight to folks like Repair.org, simply updated its EULA to block software modification in its tractors.