Big Win in Printer Cartridge Case Suggests Ways to Limit Use of DMCA

In a huge victory for consumers, the Sixth Circuit Court ruled today that printer manufacturer Lexmark cannot use the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to stop its competitors from creating and selling cartridges that interoperate with its printers. The decision lifts an injunction imposed by a lower court on the sale of Static Control Components (SCC) chips that allow any printer cartridge to work with Lexmark printers. Now, any company that wishes to compete with Lexmark in after-market cartridge sales can do so by using SCC chips in its products.

In the ruling, the judges state firmly, "We should make clear that in the future companies like Lexmark cannot use the DMCA in conjunction with copyright law to create monopolies of manufactured goods for themselves just by tweaking the facts of this case[.]"

The case, Lexmark v. Static Control Components, demonstrates one of the absurdities of the anti-circumvention clause of the DMCA. Congress intended the DMCA to thwart mass copyright infringement on the Internet, but some companies have been invoking the law to gain control over after-market competition. In this instance, Lexmark programmed its printers to require a digital "handshake" with cartridges, so that only authorized (read Lexmark) cartridges could be used. When SCC started selling chips that allowed other companies to refill used cartridges and make them interoperable with Lexmark printers, Lexmark claimed they were engaging in unlawful reverse engineering and sued under the DMCA.

EFF filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that SCC should be able to examine its competitor's technology in order to manufacture printer toner cartridges compatible with Lexmark printers without facing a copyright lawsuit.

"Reverse engineering drives competition and innovation in the technology sector," said EFF Staff Attorney Wendy Seltzer. "We're happy the court recognized it as an important practice that shouldn't be regulated by the DMCA."

This decision suggests that courts are losing patience with frivolous reverse-engineering suits filed under the DCMA that seem designed to crush competition rather than protect copyright. In a similar case, Chamberlain v. Skylink, a federal appeals court in Washington, DC, upheld a lower court ruling that allowed the marketing of "universal" remote controls for garage door openers.


Jason Schultz
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Wendy Seltzer
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation

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