March 28, 2005 1:37 PM PST

HP sues firms that refill ink cartridges

Hewlett-Packard, much of whose profit comes from printer supplies, has sued two companies that sell refilled ink cartridges, but it stopped short of trying to block the refill business altogether.

On Friday, HP sued InkCycle in U.S. District Court for the western district of Wisconsin, alleging that the company's ink violates three HP patents. And on Monday, HP sued RhinoTek in U.S. District Court for the northern district of California, accusing RhinoTek of false advertising by using packaging that indicates its refilled HP printer cartridges are new.

Refilling ink cartridges is "a giant problem, not just for HP, but for everybody in the printing business," said Gary Peterson, an analyst with GAP Intelligence. "I would say at least 10 to 15 percent of all consumables purchases are refills. That's a huge chunk of profit taken away from HP and all the other printer companies."

But HP said the suits aren't a change in HP's policy that customers have a right to refill legally purchased cartridges or buy refilled cartridges. "We still believe it's the customer's choice," said spokeswoman Monica Sarkar, adding that HP believes its products have better quality and reliability.

The Palo Alto, Calif., printer powerhouse requests that InkCycle stop--in HP's opinion--infringing the patents and pay damages and HP legal fees. Brad Roderick, vice president of marketing for InkCycle, said Monday that a settlement in that suit is expected soon.

"We've been in direct communication with HP and expect a very near-term full resolution," Roderick said. He declined to comment on terms or whether InkCycle will continue to sell its products, but he said, "We're a company that has always been respectful of intellectual-property rights."

The ramifications of the InkCycle case could spread beyond the company if it's using ink that other refillers use as well. Roderick wouldn't comment on the origin of the company's ink.

In the Rhinotek case, HP asserts that the company's "packaging and promotional materials are calculated to give consumers the impression that defendants' cartridges are new." HP wants a requirement that Rhinotek use the words "used" and "refilled" prominently on its packaging of refilled HP ink cartridges. HP also wants all Rhinotek profits from the time of the alleged deceptive advertisements.

Rhinotek didn't immediately respond to requests to comment for this story.

HP has been less aggressive in legal attacks against printer supply companies than one rival, Lexmark. HP lashed out against Lexmark's attempt to use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, to stop ink refillers.

"We think it is stretching it," HP printing unit exec Pradeep Jotwani said in a 2003 interview. "The DMCA was put in place (to protect) things like movies, music and software applications."

"We consciously make sure that our cartridges are reusable and refillable," Jotwani said at the time. The company does put some limits on the practice, such as adding software that makes some of its cartridges unusable after a certain expiration date--either four-and-a-half years after its manufacture or two-and-a-half years after its installation.

In the case against InkCycle, HP claimed the company has violated three patents: Nos. 5,165,968; 5,428,383 and 5,488,402. The first concerns fast-drying ink that works well on plain paper, and the second two concern methods for preventing color from bleeding.

HP said in its suit against Rhinotek that it holds 9,000 patents related to imaging and printing, 4,000 of them for consumable supplies such as ink and cartridges.

CNET News.com's Ina Fried contributed to this report.

19 comments

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Ink refills for computers
Wonderful! I made the misfortune of thinking that buying Lexmark 20 and 50 from Circuit City was too expensive, so I bit the advertisment for cheaper refills over the internet for 21.00 and 22.00 and ordered 6 of each. They were alright in the very beginning but in a couple of weeks, I discovered the rest had dried up and now I sit looking at the remaining cartridges kicking myself for being so gullible and knowing that I will never buy anything over the internet again. I will stick to the expensive original Lexmark brand.
Posted by (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Please do
How come you purchased a Lexmark? Costs per page are over $2 for some of their models. People you have to be careful, but you should not stop buying things online altogether.

BTW: I purchased a new Canon for $40 and each ink has its own little plastic container - meaning I can get those anywhere for $4 each. Enjoy giving money to Lexmark for me!
Posted by sanenazok (3449 comments )
Link Flag
Avoiding expensive rip-offs...
Just get a local business that refills cartridges to do it for you.
Posted by Dex2177 (2 comments )
Link Flag
Ink cost to much anyway...
I find it amusing that you go out and buy a $50 printer, but the ink for it will cost you $100. I'm not a huge fan of refills, but when ya poe ya gots ta do whats ya gots ta do.

Between genuine ink and paper it cost to much to print. Printers are like SUV and ink makers are like oil companies.
Posted by System Tyrant (1453 comments )
Reply Link Flag
HP brought this on themselves
The only reason why the refill market is so hot is because ink cartridges are one of the few things more expensive than gasoline these days!

For $30, you get the privilage of:
1) A cartridge that auto-expires on you, whether or not there is still any ink left inside.
2) Supporting a DVD-Style region lockout that prevents you from buying cheaper cartridges over the internet across borders.

If Microsoft got sued over market abuse for browset integration, why isn't price gauging a critiria?
Posted by Tex Murphy PI (165 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I dumped HP for Canon; HP won't prevail
Fed up with having to shell out over $35 for a tricolored ink cartridge, I recently dumped my HP 5150 printer for a Canon Pixma ip3000, which uses individual color cartridges, each of which sell for about $11 (black goes for a little more). The print quality has been great and I'm sure I'm going to save money over the long haul. Try a Pixma printer (street price $60 to $100) and send HP a message.

HP may win the packaging case (wanting "used" printed on the refills) but I don't think HP's gonna prevail in the other one. Saying a company that refills their ink cartridges has violated a patent is ludicrous - it's just liquid. This is just another example of one company misusing the legal system to slow another one down - why innovate when you can litigate?
Posted by truegenius (33 comments )
Link Flag
Always refill
I have an Hp printer but needed a new one to do better photos. I bouf ght Canon with individual tanks that can be refilled easily. I buy refilled for my HP because I will not pay those outrageous prices for HP's. If the manufacturers would price the cartridges at fair market value the refillers would go out of business. HP has nobody to blame but themselves.
Posted by 46thchief (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
ever take economics?
85-90% of the people out there still buy genuine catridges. With refills being an option, if the genuine (luxury) product wasn't at "a fair market price", people would buy only, or mostly, refill (inferior) products
Posted by mortis9 (370 comments )
Link Flag
HP ink cartridges better, yeah right :(
I have been able to experience the quality of HP
ink cartridges first hand.
A few years ago I bought an A3 printer from HP
and used authentic HP cartridges only.
Within a few months the inside of the printer
was getting more and more blue.
I did not make the link with leaking ink
immediately as I had used Epson printers for
years without a single problem.
Just after the warrenty period expired I had to
buy an other printer. I have had similar bad
experiences with other products from HP like an
external CD burner, which only seemed to work in
the workshop of the retailer.
Also problem sarise when you want to have a
Linux driver for HP products. It seems the
product inside the case is never a real HP
product.
The only thing authentic about HP products is
the label on the case.
I have sworn to never buy a product from HP ever
again !
Posted by johnzoet (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not surprised...
If you bought your printer during the Fiorina era, I'm not surprised. HP made some missteps during that time frame, and not improving their printing products was one of them. All they did was re-market them under the "invent" tag line.
Posted by truegenius (33 comments )
Link Flag
Care Cor the Environment
You can buy a printer for $50. The cost of replacement cartridges is $60. You do the math. Don't buy cartridges, buy printers. When the cartridges run out, send the old printer to landfill along with all of the rest of the obsolete electronic equipment.
Posted by bennybob (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Another good reason to switch to Canon
This is another reason to switch to Canon's Pixma line of printers (starting with the ip3000 and going up from there). Individual color ink cartridges are a far more reasonable $10-$11 per cartridge in stores, cheaper if you buy online, I'm sure. I can't think of another major printer manufacturer that's using the three-tank method. Maybe it's patented.
Posted by truegenius (33 comments )
Link Flag
What kind of moronic world are we living in?
Send the old computer to a landfill? I mean who the hell says that? Every time their cartridges run out, people should just buy a new printer and toss the other printer in a stupid landfill? How stupid is that? If you want to get rid a printer (or anything else in this world - that is still in working order) you DON'T throw it away, you sell it or you donate it! Plus, one-use cartridges (or anything else disposable in this world) shouldn't even exist, they should all be refillable to help prevent more waste going to already overflowing, expanding and multiplying landfills. One day that's all the Earth is going to be covered with, our damn waste, which we can prevent, but we're too stupid to do anything about it. Guess what? We're killing the Earth and the Earth is killing us. Guess who's winning?
Posted by Ayleesha (1 comment )
Link Flag
How to save $$$....
My folks own & operate a 'Mom & Pop' office supply business so, I hear this every day...
There is a brand of 're-used' carts named Elite.
The High yield Elite cart for HP is the same price as the Standard yield HP cart...just an example for die-hard printer brand users.
OR, if you want save money (if not spend any at all!), shop around for printers...ANY printers AND USE THE REBATES!!!! I do.
Most, or all printers come pre-packaged with ink carts. If you were to purchase a $50 printer with a $50 mail-in rebate(YES, they exist) you've paid $0 for the printer, $0 for the cart(s) that come with it, and, $0 to $20 for shipping (if buying online).
Sometimes the cost of buying a printer is less than the rebate so, you can come out ahead $$$.
When the ink runs out of your printer, buy another printer using rebates and sell the used printer for a few $$$ or donate it for tax purposes. Don't forget, there are recycling companies out there that will pay YOU for your spent carts!!!!!!
Where are the rebates? Go to the manufacturer websites to print them off.
Posted by bybru69 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
HP losses if they pursue this....
I currently have an HP and like them...if I cannot refill my own cart...I will buy the next printer from someone that allows it.
Posted by ganerd (2 comments )
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