A Recent Case Over Printer Toner Cartridges Has Gone To The Supreme Court. Here’s Why You Should Know About It

Supreme Court decisions are usually highly publicized and hotly debated. The most famous cases affect civil rights and social policies. But in fact, these types of cases make up just a fraction are of the many cases our highest court hears each year. And, while they may not get the media attention, the mundane issues the Supreme Court resolves can significantly affect our day-to-day lives.

Take for example a recent case over printer toner cartridges. Sure, this quick gloss doesn’t have the makings of a particularly attention-grabbing case, but the Supreme Court’s ruling in this corporate squabble could have implications for all consumers. And by all consumers, I mean everyone in America.

At issue is this far-reaching question: Can a company that sold you a product use a patent to control how you choose to use that product after purchase?

The case in question is Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc. Here’s a quick rundown of the facts.

  • Big-name company Lexmark makes printers.
  • Printers need toner in order to print, and Lexmark also happens to sell toner.
  • Smaller company Impression Products makes and refills toner cartridges for use in printers, including Lexmark’s.

And here we see the rub. Lexmark doesn’t want folks using third-party toner cartridges. Why? Because that’s money that Lexmark doesn’t make.

After all, the real money isn’t in selling printers; it’s in selling the accompanying ink and toner cartridges. A one-time purchase of a $75 printer is a drop in the bucket compared to the continual demand for $30 name-brand cartridges.

So Lexmark sued, turning to its patents to provide a cause of action. (I’ll spare the details of the “patent exhaustion” piece, lest your eyes glaze over.) Lexmark put a notice on its cartridge packaging that forbids reuse or transfers to third parties. When Impression started reselling or recycling the cartridges, Lexmark accused them of patent infringement.

Lower courts sided with Lexmark, ruling that Impression was using Lexmark’s patented technology in an unauthorized way. The Supreme Court is Impression’s last avenue of appeal.

In essence, the Court is tasked with aligning a 2017 technology and a 1952 patent law. What’s notable is that the law’s authors probably never intended it to be interpreted as a restriction on what consumers can do with products after purchase.

Groups across the country with a stake in technology, copyright, software, privacy, or any other modern day concern have filed briefs supporting one of the two arguments in this case. Included in the mix are businesses spanning the gamut from Costco to Intel. After all, an entire business model and a host of consumer rights are at stake.

Last week, the Court heard oral arguments from attorneys for both sides. However, a ruling is likely still months away. During the arguments, the justices didn’t show an indication of how they might rule. But they realize the implications their ruling will carry. According to a SCOTUS blog analyst, the Justices don’t see any obvious way to avoid something that will carry real economic consequences.

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