Economy Politics

The question of what you can do with your printer cartridge once it runs out went all the way to the Supreme Court. The answer: whatever you want.

Here’s how it works: you buy an inexpensive printer from Lexington-based Lexmark. You use your printer until the cartridge runs out…and then you’re faced with a dilemma. You could buy a new cartridge from Lexmark or from an office supply store, even a big-box store. Oh, and it could be costly. 

But companies like Impressions Products in West Virginia gave consumers another option: they’d spiffy-up and refill the cartridges and then resell them cheaper than Lexmark.

As The New York Times reported this week, companies like Lexmark have long battled independent companies that refill cartridges and resell them cheaper than manufacturers do:

Inkjet printer ink is one of the world’s most expensive liquids, with Consumer Reports magazine estimating in 2013 that it cost $13 to $75 an ounce — more than top-class Champagne and many perfumes. A new Lexmark toner cartridge, with a suggested price of almost $200, sells for $138 at a major retailer. But a refurbisher currently sells a replacement for $72.

Lexmark cried patent infringement. But on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. 


Lexmark ink and toner supplies

“What this basically says is that even if you have a patent on something, once you sell it to somebody else, you can’t tell them how to use it,” says Christopher Bollinger, an economist at the University of Kentucky. He’s not surprised by the ruling.

“It’s surprising that this needed to be settled,” says Bollinger.

But we’re not just talking about printer cartridges, right?

“Can you imagine an automobile manufacturer saying ‘well you bought this car new from me, we have patents on various parts of that car — you can’t sell that car to anyone else,'” he says. 

And there were other industries — like drug and mobile phone companies — that were watching this case closely.

Bollinger says it’s possible the decision won’t have an effect on Lexmark’s profits or cause the company to lay off workers in the Bluegrass because of a nose dive in sales of cartridges.

“So what that means is that they’re just gonna have to restructure their pricing a bit, but I don’t think that they’re gonna have to restructure them that much,” he says.

Lexmark was recently sold to a Chinese consortium.  

The Supreme Court ruling may be a setback for the company. But Bollinger says globally, Lexmark is going to be alright.