In Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International Inc., the Supreme Court issued an important ruling affirming your right to own the things you buy. The case involved the doctrine of “patent exhaustion,” which says that once a patent owner sells a product, it cannot later claim the product’s use or sale is infringing. This principle prevents patent owners from controlling goods after sale and interfering with your right to resell, tinker with, and understand the things you own.
Printer company Lexmark had attempted to avoid patent exhaustion by selling printer cartridges with restrictions on refilling and resale. Impression Products acquired used Lexmark ink cartridges and then refilled and resold them, sparking a lawsuit from Lexmark claiming infringement. The Federal Circuit decided in Lexmark’s favor, ruling that a customer’s use of a product can be “restricted” by the patent owner with something as simple as a notice on disposable packaging. The Federal Circuit also ruled that authorized sales overseas did not exhaust patent rights.
EFF filed three amicus brief in this case, first at the Federal Circuit, then in support of the petition for certiorari at the Supreme Court, and finally at the merits stage before the Supreme Court. In our briefs, we argued that “conditional sales” like the ones attempted by Lexmark cannot impose arbitrary conditions on a customer’s use of a product. We also argued that authorized sales overseas must exhaust patent rights. We explained that any contrary ruling interfered with settled expectations about ownership and would interfere with resale and repair markets.
On May 30, 2017, the Supreme Court reversed the Federal Circuit, agreeing with EFF on both issues. The Court ruled that Lexmark exhausted its patent rights after making its conditional sales and that it also exhausted patent rights on its overseas sales.