San Francisco - When you buy a printer cartridge, is it yours? Or can the company control what you do with it, even after you pay your bill and take it home? The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the U.S. Supreme Court today to protect consumers’ property rights in a court case centering on the important “patent exhaustion” doctrine.

In Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International Inc., printer company Lexmark sold 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.

In the amicus brief filed today, EFF—joined by Public Knowledge, AARP and the AARP Foundation, Mozilla, and R Street—argued that “conditional sales” like the ones attempted by Lexmark cannot impose arbitrary conditions on a customer’s use of a product. The Federal Circuit’s incorrect ruling to the contrary goes against 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.

“If allowed to stand, the lower court’s decision could block your right to reuse, resell, and tinker with the devices you own,” said EFF Staff Attorney Daniel Nazer, who is also the Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents. “Under this theory, consumers could be held liable for infringement for using products purchased legally, and that the patent owner has already been paid for.”

Patent exhaustion has been part of centuries of law upholding the right of individuals to use and resell their possessions. If patent owners can control goods after sale, then all sorts of activities—like security research, reverse engineering, and device modification—would be threatened.

“This trick is straight out of some companies’ wishlists for restricting user rights,” said EFF Staff Attorney Kit Walsh. “They have tried a variety of legal tactics to restrict your ability to repair or resell the things you buy, and to prevent experts from investigating how they work. That includes experts who want to figure out if your devices are secure and respecting your privacy, or who want to build products that can plug in to your devices and make them do new and useful things. We urge the Supreme Court to reaffirm the patent exhaustion doctrine, and protect people’s rights to own and understand the products they’ve purchased.”

For the full amicus brief:


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