Lexmark's loss is everyone's gain

Lexmark's fight against third-party ink cartidge makers was a fight against its own customers. The damning judgment against it will have far-reaching consequences for us all

When printer ink costs more than perfume, something smells wrong. So when Gartner recently did a few simple sums and worked out that, at £1,200 a litre, printer ink costs more than Chanel No.5, it's hardly surprising that a few eyebrows were raised.

This is a problem whose root cause permeates other areas of the tech industry too. The same legislation that has been used to stop sales of cheap aftermarket printer supplies is also being employed to bottle up maintenance deals, locking out third-party maintenance contractors.

We are talking, of course, about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) -- a particularly unpopular piece of US legislation that was drafted to help stop copyright infringement, and which has been used to stop everything from cryptographic research to, yes, aftermarket printer cartridges and third-party maintenance. It has even been used in an attempt to shut out third-party garage door openers.

The decision this week by a federal appeals court in the US to stop Lexmark from closing down the market for third-party ink cartridge makers is therefore a breath of fresh air. Lexmark's desire to create a stranglehold is understandable: a year ago the company made $641m from sales of printer consumables, compared to $430m from sales of the printers themselves, in one quarter.

Nobody disputes Lexmark's right to make a profit from sales of consumables -- printers are ridiculously cheap after all. But shutting out competitors was not the intention of the DMCA, yet that is effectively what Lexmark attempted with its practice of using the DMCA to stop companies -- in this case Static Control Components (SCC) -- circumventing the technology that identified Lexmark cartridges to a printer.

The court said that "lock-out" codes in software that's designed to control or limit interoperability is not covered by the original-expression intentions of copyright law. Furthermore, said the court, SCC's reverse engineering was not a circumvention of Lexmark's Toner Loader Program but a replacement of it, so even if the code had been covered by copyright, SCC's implementation would have been allowed under the fair-use doctrine.

The fact that the court was unequivocal in its dismissal of Lexmark's practice and arguments is good news. Other companies were warned against using the DMCA in conjunction with copyright law to create monopolies of manufactured goods for themselves just by tweaking the facts of this case.

Companies such as StorageTek, which has used the DMCA to stop third-party contractors servicing the equipment it has sold, should take notice. With any luck, the ruling by the US court of appeals will put an end to this madness.