What Does A Supreme Court Ruling About Printers Mean For Cars?
If you are confused by our article headline, allow us to explain. This week, the Supreme Court ruled in the Impression Products, Inc v Lexmark International, Inc case that it heard in March. In this case, printer maker Lexmark argued that its patents meant that Impression Products could not make a product to refill its ink cartridges. This seems like a simple enough fight, but it actually had far-reaching implications. As Consumerist put the bigger issue succinctly: “Can the company that sold you something it holds the patent on determine what you do with it after you’ve bought it, or do they exhaust their patent and therefore relinquish control?”
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The Supreme Court of the United States voted overwhelmingly in favor of Impression Products (with the exception of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who took issue with the international implications of this ruling), which means that when a patented product is sold, the rights of the patent holder no longer apply, or are exhausted. That means that once you buy a product, in the eyes of the court it belongs to you and the company that used its patent to make it cannot dictate what you do with it.
Chief Justice John Roberts penned the court’s opinion and, to demonstrate his point about patent exhaustion, he actually gave an automotive example. People buy cars, and in the course of its life they will need service and repair. It is a car owner’s decision whether they take it back to the manufacturer for work or a third-party garage. Plenty of garages also buy used cars and fix them up to be sold to new owners. In the world Lexmark asked for in its suit, an automaker and its partners that make the parts in the vehicle would be able to step in and exercise its rights to forbid the garage from working with its products or selling any of its products themselves second-hand. If an automaker decided to not enforce that right, garages around the US would close to avoid possible liability for working on cars they did not build.
While this is a great day for both printer owners and the people and businesses that like to tinker with cars, don’t forget that the patent is not the only thing governing these vehicles. Copyright law and digital rights management laws can still protect certain parts of your vehicle, especially when it comes to its computers and any user agreements you might be a party to. In the eyes of the law, though, rest assured that once you own your car, it really is yours.