The future is tinkering7/5/2017
It may not seem like the sexiest of tech innovations, but printer ink cartridges have just sent a shockwave through the tech history. In Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc., the United States Supreme Court heard arguments on whether or not Impression Products could legally take the sold and dispensed ink cartridges of Lexmark and refill them. As is the case with these court cases, the weeds of details are thick and cumbersome, but the gist of the argument is in Lexmark’s terms and conditions on its ink cartridges, which says customers cannot refill them with anyone but Lexmark. Impression Products brazenly set those terms and conditions on fire and undercut the Lexmark refill business by a wide margin.
Lexmark’s legal claim to demand such a conditional sale was its patent; anyone who bought Lexmark ink and refilled it outside the Lexmark system was breaking patent law. After a long legal battle, the Supreme Court torched that argument. In the majority decision, the court found “A United States patent entitles the patent holder to ‘exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling [its] invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States.’ When a patentee sells one of its products, the patentee can no longer control that item through the patent laws — its patent rights are said to “exhaust.” The term “exhaust” is sending device manufacturers spinning.
A popular device to hack are gaming consoles. For decades, Sony has fought hackers who try to enhance or jailbreak their systems for use beyond their manufactured intent. Just like Lexmark, Sony’s argument was that the purchase of a Playstation gaming console is conditional on accepting the terms forbidding hacking. This Supreme Court decision steamrolls that entire argument.
If you want to hack and tinker with your smartphone, laptop, camera, gaming system, drone, automobile or even children’s toys, the fear of patent retribution has evaporated. Now tech surgeons across the nation are within their full legal rights to splice open their electronics and create any type of franken-gadget they can conjure up — not to mention sell that reimagined masterpiece with impunity.
Of course, legal certainty does not mean warranty liberty. Lexmark and all patent exhaustion victims can still void warranties if any product is used in a manner beyond manufacturer’s intent. So before you spread your tools out to crack open your iPad and play with its guts, know you’re legally OK but break it and Apple will do nothing but laugh at you.
While this decision is a Christmas gift in May for solder junkies, it is only a single link in the tangled knots of the patent war chain. Nebulous patents still exist and carry legal weight for products that don’t actually exist, may exist in the near future, or are purely hypothetical. So don’t think your hacked gadget will bring you fame and fortune. Chances are someone owns the patent on it and will crush your tinkering dreams. ♦