Toner Cartridge SCOTUS Case Is 'Potentially Momentous'

Supreme Court decision will affect much more than just printer toner refills
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 24, 2017 9:42 AM CDT
SCOTUS Fight on Toner Cartridges May Hit Your Wallet
File photo of HP printer cartridges on the shelf of a Best Buy store.   (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

It might be the sleeper case of the current Supreme Court session: A fight over the seemingly humdrum topic of toner cartridges for printers actually has "potentially momentous importance for modern commerce," per the respected SCOTUSblog. On its surface, the case of Impression Products v. Lexmark International is fairly straightforward: Lexmark makes printers, along with the cartridges that provide the toner for those printers. (In fact, cartridge refills are where printer companies such as Lexmark really make their money, explains Consumerist.) Impression is a small West Virginia company that sells unauthorized refills at a cheaper price—it disabled a computer chip on the cartridges to do so—and Lexmark sued to stop them, claiming a violation of patent law. So far, the courts have sided with Lexmark, and the Supreme Court heard arguments this week.

The reason for the interest is that the case has implications far beyond printers. It revolves around an arcane patent issue known as "exhaustion," which involves a patent owner's right to control the use of its product once it has been purchased. In this case, for example, AARP has written a brief on behalf of Impression because it's worried that drug companies could impose strict restrictions on their drugs, notes Fortune. In fact, Consumerist writes that the case has implications "for basically anyone who ever buys anything—so all of us." A decision is expected in June, and the justices didn't provide enough clues in their questions for any of the sources to predict which side will win. Either way, it will have "real economic consequences," writes Ronald Mann at SCOTUSblog. (Neil Gorsuch fielded a bizarre question about ducks at his confirmation hearing.)

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