Linda Musthaler: Ink fuels the printer wars, chips thwart savings

Speaking The LANguage

You might think that all laser or inkjet printers are pretty much the same, and basically, they are. Manufacturers such as Canon Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Lexmark International Inc. don’t make a lot of money on each printer they sell. The big bucks come from selling you supplies such as ink cartridges over the life of a printer.

A network printer might cost US$3,000 or US$4,000 to buy, but the cartridges can add up to more than that over the life of the printer. For the printer manufacturer, the consumable supplies represent predictable recurring revenue at a high profit margin.

But buyers don’t always purchase their supplies from the OEM. Some of us are environmentally friendly and buy recycled, or remanufactured, printer cartridges, which often cost less than new ones. This practice is so prevalent that cartridge remanufacturing is a multi-billion-dollar business.

Here’s where the fight gets nasty. OEMs don’t like losing out on cartridge sales, so in about 1996, manufacturers started putting chips in the cartridges that hinder their reuse. These companies claim the chips improve the cartridges’ performance by monitoring ink usage and print quality. That might be true, but these chips also make the ink cartridges more complex than they need to be. This has made it difficult for remanufacturers to offer high-quality recycled supplies.

For example, these so-called smart chips detect when a cartridge is empty and mark it as such. Even if the cartridge is refilled with ink, the chip refuses to reset the cartridge’s condition as anything other than empty. When you put the cartridge back in the printer, the printer thinks it’s empty and won’t use it.

The OEMs don’t see this as a bad thing. They claim it’s for the good of the consumer, because a printing system really consists of the printer and the original cartridge filled with original ink. Anything less than all-original components could produce a lower-quality result, they say.

Hmm, that argument sounds familiar. Wasn’t there a recent ruling against Microsoft in which the company’s attempt to protect consumers from a “lower-quality experience” was called monopolistic? I’m not sure I see the difference in the case of the chip-protected printers, except that multiple OEMs have acknowledged the practice. While this puts the power of printing into the hands of a few manufacturers, numerous remanufacturers are locked out of the market.

In January, Lexmark tried an interesting tactic to block rivals from refilling its cartridges. Invoking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Lexmark claimed that a company called Static Control unlawfully sold its Smartek chips to companies that refill Lexmark printer cartridges. The Smartek chips fool the printer into thinking it has an original cartridge from Lexmark. Section 1201 of the DMCA makes it illegal to circumvent technology meant to protect copyrighted work. Static Control has halted Smartek chip sales while the lawsuit is reviewed.

Last December, the European Parliament approved a law that directs printer OEMs to eliminate the use of their smart chips in cartridges. The tact was more to promote recycling than to prevent monopolistic tendencies. If a cartridge cannot be reused, it will end up in the dump.

I am an advocate of recycling and protecting intellectual property, which would seem to place me on both sides of the printer wars. But I just don’t agree with Lexmark’s claim that printing is a copyrightable process. HP apparently agrees with me, saying it does not support invoking the DMCA in this instance. But that hasn’t stopped HP from loading its cartridges with its own smart chips that discourage refills.

I appreciate technical innovation, but not when it is used to thwart competition that will benefit the consumer. And when I say “the consumer,” I include all corporate users of these printers, as these are the companies with hundreds if not thousands of the devices.

Enterprise customers are the ones with the loudest voices and the biggest purse strings. It’s your job to tell your printer OEM that you prefer to have the innovation focused on improving the printing experience and not killing the competition. If you don’t speak up now, you might be destined to pay far more for consumable printing supplies than you really need.

Musthaler is vice-president of Currid & Company, a Houston technology assessment firm. She can be reached