Printer Toner Cartridges
Lexmark has just won an injunction against the company Static Control Components that will put a stop to them selling the Smartek computer chip. This chip can be installed into a Lexmark printer so that the printer will work with cheaper recycled toner cartridges. Sounds like a good thing right? Not as far as Lexmark is concerned. The way there business model works right now is to sell you the printer as cheap as possible then make a mint as you churn through low-capacity, high-priced ink and toner cartridges. Those low, low prices you see advertised in computer stores are often just the tip of the iceberg of the full costs to owning the printer. If you are buying cheaper, recycled, re-filled cartridges then Lexmark ultimately will lose money on your purchase. If you ask me, it sounds like a problem with their business model, rather than another companies ability to produce a product, sell it cheaper, and still make money. For a while the printer companies had nothing to worry about. Their business model seemed to work well. They sell you the printer for less than $100.. you are overjoyed... until you find out that your printer either doesn't come with ink/toner or the cartridge is only partially filled(!). Then you find out that typical cartridges are in the $30 to $100 range. Hmm. Seems a little deceptive, no? Others thought so.. and some enterprising individuals made it possible to buy ink and toner replacement kits. Just squirt the colours into the right compartments, or pour the toner into the cartridge opening and away you go. Other companies offered to take in your old cartridges and then gave you some newly refilled ones for a much reduced price. This could easily save you $100s of dollars a year. The printer companies were not happy. They retaliated by making any new cartridges sealed and very difficult to access. No way to open it without destroying the cartridge. But if you think about it, if the ink or toner can get out onto the paper when printing... then it must be able to get back in the same way -- perhaps just not as easily as with older cartridges. A few special tools and the ink-sellers and cartridge recyclers were back in business. Eventually the printer companies went high tech and embedded special computer chips into the cartridges that monitor the ink-level. The printers had corresponding chips and the printer chips talks to the cartridge chips and they became good buddies. There were different approaches, but in essence the cartridge chips refused to acknowledge new ink within themselves and once they determined they were empty they would tell the printer chip and the printer would just refuse to use that cartridge anymore. No amount of prodding would convince the printer otherwise. There were more retaliations.. like cartridge ink/toner level chip-resetters that electronically re-program the cartridge chips to think they are full again... but the company Static Control Components had a better idea. Instead of worrying about the cartridge chips.. they looked at the chip on the printer that talks to the cartridge chips. This is a classic software cracking maneuver. Instead of trying to figure out where a software serial number is stored, generated and validated.. a potentially complex process, you just modify the function that checks where the serial number is stored, generated and validated and force it to always return something appropriate. This is what Static Control Components did. They designed a chip to replace the ink/toner-level checking chip that resides in the printer. At this point the chip can completely ignore the level the cartridge claims to be and just tell the printer to use the cartridge. With such a chip installed, there was nothing preventing you from using the refill inks and recycled cartidges again. Which is why Lexmark took Static Control Components to court. There were likely two good reasons for this. First, it made more sense to take the litigation route than to invest in sneakier more devious cartridge protection systems. As technical as the protections became, people always managed to workaround them. Second, until this time, Lexmark had no legal reason to take anybody to court. What makes the latest developments different is that Static Control Components apparently had to reverese-engineer the chip that resides within the printer. It makes sense. It isn't as if Lexmark is going to produce stats on how the chip works. But according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, a highly controversial piece of legislation introduced in 1998, you aren't allowed to reverse-engineer a technological measure put in place to protect copyright. This was originally intended to prevent people from doing things like cracking the encryption on DVDs and distributing a non- encrypted version. Who knew it would apply to computer chips in printers to protect an aging, faulty business model? If this continues to be succesfully upheld, then we can likely expect to see this become a common way for companies to prevent competitors or anybody else from infringing on their market share. Wrap your interface within a hardware chip or obfuscated code and you've created a tripwire for legal action under the DMCA. It isn't an issue of copyright. It's an issue of money and greed and silly exploitable laws.