Impression v Lexmark: Supreme Court Affirms You Have A Right To Modify & Repair Products
Are you allowed to repair your stuff when it breaks?
It’s probably not a question you’ve thought about—nor one even worth thinking about. Right?
Of course you can fix your stuff, we do it all the time. In fact, there are whole industries, and tens of thousands of people, dedicated to fixing old refrigerators, computers, cars—you name it, someone fixes it.
But that’s not what Lexmark, a manufacturer of printer and toner cartridges, argued to the Supreme Court in the recent case Impression v Lexmark.
Instead, they contended that they retained various property rights over their products after they were sold to consumers—including the right to prevent third parties from modifying or repairing them.
Here’s how the facts of the case played out: Lexmark makes two types of printer cartridges, an expensive reusable model, and a cheaper single-use one.
Practically speaking, they’re basically the same product. The only mechanical difference between the two is that the single-use cartridge includes a chip that disables the cartridge if you try to refill it.
Why? To force you to buy another single-use unit.
To this end, they also made consumers sign a boilerplate “post-sale restriction” contract—which few people probably bothered reading.
This is where Impression Products comes in.
Impression is a small, family-run office supply company out of West Virginia. They found a way to refill Lexmark’s single-use printer cartridges by disabling the disabling chip.
Lenmark sued them for patent infringement in 2013. Impression was baffled: hundreds of companies refurbish and resell used products, after all.
Impression v Lexmark Isn’t About Printer Ink, It’s About Property Rights
Of course, the arguments in Impression v Lexmark are much bigger than simple printer cartridge—the case is about property rights.
Specifically, did Lexmark retain the right to limit the purchaser’s ability to modify or repair their product? How much control over the use of products do manufacturers retain, and how much control do purchasers actually purchase?
Also, how much weight do we assign those forms that no one ever reads?
And remember, rulings from the Supreme Court have far-reaching implications: what about private mechanic shops that repair automobiles, does GM have the right to sue them for tampering with their products?
What about people who modify their laptops or phones?
Consumer rights advocates have expressed these exact concerns, saying that claims like this “jeopardize independent product refurbishers and repair services.”
Luckily, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Impression in a 7-1 decision, finding that Lexmark’s patent rights expired upon purchase of the cartridge—despite the sales-clause saying otherwise.
Finding otherwise, the Court wrote, would adversely harm the economy, by opening the litigation floodgates on every repair shop in the country. This would impair the “smooth flow of commerce”, and would end up harming all parties involved.
And it would: the certainty of property rights are a key element in driving long run economic growth.
The decision in Impression v Lexmark is a major victory for American consumers.
Feel free to repair your old gadgets and doohickeys—it’s your right as an American.