IT TOOK a while to join the dots. On the morning of September 13th owners of several types of HP OfficeJet, a printer designed for the home and for smaller offices that is manufactured by HP Inc, an American seller of printers and computers, switched on their machines and found them not quite the same. The night before they had been able to print with any sort of ink cartridge. Since that day only machines containing original HP cartridges have churned out copies. The cause, enraged customers came to realise, was the deployment by HP of a firmware update that blocks rival ink.
HP had reason to act as it did. Though its printers business remains profitable, revenues fell by 14% in the year to July. More-paperless offices take most of the blame: printer shipments have tumbled by a fifth since 2007. But rivals in the market for ink squeeze margins. Non-original cartridges now make up about 26% of the trade in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and 16% in North America.
Dirt-cheap “clone” cartridges, mostly from China, have spread over the past decade. HP’s move obstructs fakes, which do break copyright law (and the odd printer). Also affected are lawful businesses, points out Tim Parsons of Promax Imaging, a small British firm which refills the ink in “original” branded printer cartridges (a cartridge “remanufacturer”, in the jargon). It is also quite legal for so-called “private label” companies to pull HP ink cartridges apart and create new versions that are compatible with HP printers. Their quality easily matches that of original cartridges and they can cost a quarter as much.
Big manufacturers such as HP, for whom printer cartridges are highly profitable products, have long attempted to wipe out these bargain-basement rivals. From the early 2000s they have used smart chips in their cartridges to make them harder to copy or refill. In 2002 Lexmark, an American printer-maker, sued Static Control, a company that had found a way to befuddle those chips. But Lexmark lost. The court defended the right of Static Control to make parts that “interoperate” with the goods of another manufacturer. Small firms that provide private-label spare parts for a whole range of industries, such as car manufacturing, cheered.
Firmware updates are another common way to repel rivals. But HP’s update stands out, says Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for being a particularly extreme rewiring of its OfficeJet printers in the homes of customers.
Can we even be said to own property, he asks, if digital-rights management grants the manufacturer control of one part of a product in perpetuity? Mr Doctorow frets that, as printer manufacturers load ever more chips with similar software, courts may be swayed to extend the reach of copyright to parts and refills businesses across many industries. General Motors, a car manufacturer, now claims to own parts of a vehicle after it has been driven off the forecourt.
For the time being, HP’s rivals seem likely to carry on finding ways to sell their cheap cartridges. A Dutch private-label company, 123inkt, says it will be able to keep supplying the HP printers despite the firmware update. Chips from Static Control, which function in the cartridges of several private-label firms and remanufacturers, were not blocked by HP. But the recent purchase by HP of Samsung’s printer business, for $1.1 billion, does blot their prospects. According to Laura Heywood of Kleen Strike, a remanufacturer, cartridge makers may find it much harder to interfere with the printer chips made by Samsung, which are renowned for being “more complicated than Germany’s Enigma code machine.”