I pull no punches when it comes to my views on intellectual property. While I want intellectual property abolished entirely, I do admit that some uses are more egregious than others. One of the most egregious uses is restricting what consumers can do with a product after they’ve purchased it. John Deere made headlines by using intellectual property laws to prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment. Printer manufacturers have also been using intellectual property laws to restrict consumer access to third-party ink. The Supreme Court’s most recent ruling dealt a hard blow to those printer manufacturers:
The US Supreme Court voted 7-1 to place more limits on the rights of patent-holders, striking down a decision by the nation’s top patent court for the second time in two weeks.
Lexmark sued Impression, alleging two different kinds of violations of patent law. First, Impression was accused of buying Return Program cartridges, altering their chips, re-filling them, and re-selling them in the US. Second, Impression bought some Lexmark cartridges abroad and imported them into the US. Lexmark said all the cartridges in that second group infringed its patents, whether they were Return Program cartridges or Regular. The Federal Circuit held that in both cases, Lexmark could go ahead and sue, in part because Impression had full knowledge of exactly the restrictions that were placed on the cartridges.
The Supreme Court reversed on both counts. As to the US sales of Return Program cartridges, “Lexmark exhausted its patent rights in these cartridges the moment it sold them,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority. “A patentee is free to set the price and negotiate contracts with his purchasers, but may not, ‘by virtue of his patent, control the use or disposition’ of the product after ownership passes to the purchaser.” [Emphasis in original.]
Once I’ve purchased a product it should be mine to do with as I please. If I want to send my spent ink cartridge to a company that specializes in bypassing measures designed to prevent me from refilling the cartridge then I should have every right to do so. Being able to do whatever you want with your property (so long as it doesn’t harm another person or their property) is the very definition of ownership.
In recent decades companies have been abusing intellectual property laws to restrict what consumers can legally do with their property. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was one of the worst instances of consumer restriction because it actually made the act of bypassing any form of manufacturer restriction implemented to guard copyrighted material outright illegal. This combined with software copyright laws created an environment of consumer feudalism where consumers were effectively serfs who licensed products and could only use them in manners expressly permitted by the manufacturer lords. Fortunately, the current Supreme Court appears to be reversing this trend.