In a win for anyone who has ever been frustrated by overpriced ink, the Supreme Court ruled today (PDF) that printer maker Lexmark can't sue companies that refill old cartridges and sell them at a discount. More specifically, the court ruled that Lexmark gave away its patent rights to the cartridges (and their single-use microchips) as soon as it started selling them. While the case may seem narrowly focused, digital rights groups are hailing it as a win for consumers in general and a decision that could affect everyone's right to repair their own devices. Even though Lexmark's customer contract states the cartridges can't be reused or resold, the court decided that these restrictions don't apply to remanufacturers that recycle used cartridges -- such as the West Virginia-based printer shop that initially brought the case. The court also rejected Lexmark's arguments that these complicated contract structures are necessary in the modern technology industry.
The implications of the patent system for information and communication technologies (ICT) has been a focus of debate in recent years. One representative example is the smartphone dispute between Apple and Samsung, which led to over 40 international lawsuits over their design and utility patents between 2012 and 2014. Patents are intended to provide incentives for innovation by granting inventors temporary monopoly rights to profit from their inventions. Therefore, the patent system has the potential to promote new technology development and economic growth. However, ICT products often consist of interlocking inventions.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimouslyTuesday that patent holders cannot sue people or companies who refurbish or resell products based on their patents, making it more difficult for manufacturers and drugmakers to control how their products are sold on secondary markets. The decision was handed down in a case between U.S.-based and Chinese-owned printer and imaging products manufacturer Lexmark and refurbished ink cartridge seller Impression Products. Read: Did Samsung Copy Apple? The case originally was brought by Lexmark, which sued Impression Products in Ohio federal court in 2010 on the grounds the small business was infringing on patents owned by Lexmark by refilling and reselling printer ink cartridges. Lexmark argued it retained patent rights to the cartridges even after their sale.
In a case that helps clarify how patents are handled in the telecoms industry, Judge Colin Birss ruled that the court can determine what a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory rate is for licensing agreements. Such rates cover the use of patented technologies that have become the standard on which global mobile phone networks are based.