What Today’s Supreme Court Printer Case Means For Business

Credit: fortune.com

The Supreme Court is about to hear what sounds like a simple dispute: When can a printer company forbid others from refilling its toner cartridges?

But this ordinary-sounding patent case carries profound implications for retailers and resellers across the U.S. economy, and has led dozens of scholars, public interest groups, and companies from IBM to Costco to weigh in. The case, known as Impression Products v. Lexmark International, will be argued before the Supreme Court at 11 am ET on Tuesday.

Here’s a plain English guide to what you need to know about the case.

Why is the Supreme Court hearing a case about toner cartridges?

The printer giant Lexmark, which earns much of its revenue from cartridge sales, sued a small West Virginia company for selling refills of its cartridges without permission. The company, Impression Products, disabled a chip in the cartridges so that Lexmark printers did not realize they were unauthorized refills. This lets consumers save money on toner, but poses a threat to Lexmark’s business model. An appeals court took Lexmark’s side, and concluded that Impression’s activities amounted to an unauthorized use of the company’s patented technology. Now, Impression is appealing.

It’s just toner cartridges. What’s the big deal?

While the dispute will affect the printer market, a Supreme Court ruling for Lexmark would give patent owners broad new powers to limit what people can do with their products after they are sold. Just as Lexmark says it has a right to limit the resale or modification of its cartridges, car or drug companies could theoretically impose their own unusual restrictions:

“A [patent owner could sell] pharmaceuticals ‘only to be swallowed whole,’ or a radio ‘only for use on Sundays,’ and sue someone who splits his pills or forgets the day of the week for patent infringement … Less fancifully, a patentee could sell a car with a "no resale" restriction and shut down the market for used cars,” wrote a group of scholars in support of Impression Products.

This could seriously affect resale markets and consumer choice. On the other side, Lexmark and its supporters see Impression’s activities as a form of piracy, and warn that they could dramatically upset their business model.

What are the legal arguments?

In its victory at the appeals court, Lexmark relied on a technical argument about the 1952 Patent Act that revolves around the word “authority.” Basically, Lexmark says the meaning of the law is that it can enforce its patent rights even after a sale if the user engages in unauthorized activity.

Opponents, meanwhile, point to a long-time patent principle known as “exhaustion.” This idea, which dates back to the Civil War-era, means that after a patent owner sells its product, its rights over that product are finished. The thinking here goes something like “patent owners get to collect monopoly prices when they first sell the product, so they shouldn’t get to double dip.”

Impression’s supporters also claim that new post-sale patent rights will create huge uncertainty about what people can do with their property. Patent owners could pop up all over the place and say a certain use of a product is unauthorized, and that the owner must pay patent damages. They add that in situations like Lexmark and its refill policies, companies should try to exert control through ordinary contracts, not through powerful patent monopolies.

There is also a second question before the Supreme Court in this case, which is about when companies can import patented products to the U.S. that they bought legally overseas.

Who is weighing in?

Public interest groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the AARP (which is concerned about how new patent rights would affect drug products) are among those that filed briefs to support Impression. Others include retailers like Costco, and tech companies like Intel and HTC, which fear disruption to their supply chains and retail operations.

Those on Lexmark’s side include pharmaceutical makers, patent holding companies, and Qualcomm. IBM also filed to support Lexmark, but only on the second question about overseas products.

The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, is mostly arguing in favor Impression, and asking the Supreme Court to reverse part of the decision.

Who is going to win?

No one is making any firm predictions about this one, though there are some factors that favor Impression. A big one is the Supreme Court has had it in for the patent appeals court, reversing it numerous times in recent years, often by a 9-0 margin. Other factors include the Justice Department’s support for Impression, and the larger policy concern that a ruling for Lexmark could unsettle established rules around property rights.

The second question (about importing patented products for resale) is more up in the air. In a 2013 copyright case called Kirtsaeng, the Supreme Court ruled that a publisher could not block the resale of books in the U.S. that had been legally bought overseas. But that was based on the Copyright Act, and not about the common law patent “exhaustion” rules in question here.

Finally, there is a slight chance of a 4-4 tie (recall that the Senate has yet to confirm President Trump’s nominee Neil Gorsuch to the top court), which would mean that the lower court’s ruling in Lexmark’s favor would be upheld.

Where can I read more about this?

SCOTUSblog has a very thorough explanation of the case, and links to all the friend-of-the-court briefs, while Adam Liptak of the New York Times offers a good big picture overview. Professor Dennis Crouch who runs the well-respected patent law blog PatentlyO, has more details about the case, including a detailed account of the facts.

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Notice that I said “people” and not “fans.” This is an important distinction (more on that in a minute). While fan-centric data is valuable, understanding how all people, including the ones who don’t know your business, engage with a piece of content, can provide insight as to how to optimize future organic (and paid) content on Facebook. Why should you care? Right out the gate, let’s be real with one another for a second: Who doesn’t want a 225% increase in any metric (outside of cost)? As I mentioned before, Post impressions are a reach metric; they allow you to understand how many induvial, fan or otherwise, are seeing your organic posts. When it comes to your existing fans, this is helpful .But it’s with those additional viewers that you’ll glean real value. When non-fan users see and engage with your posts, you’re ostensibly using your organic content on Facebook to function like the Google Display Network. You’re building brand awareness and providing value to potential prospects at no cost to you. Free clout with your future customers ain't a bad thing, people. Chart #5: Running Ads Increases Unique Facebook Fans Reached by 90% We just focused on overall reach, how your organic posts on Facebook are seen by more individuals when you advertise on the channel, too. Now we’re going to focus explicitly on the subset of people your organic content reaches who are already fans of your business page.   Simply advertising on Facebook will give your organic posts a 90% increase in unique fans reached, even if you don’t boost them after posting. The only thing better than an engaged fan is a boatload of engaged fans you didn’t have to pay for. What are Unique Facebook Fans? Drumroll please…. Unique Facebook fans are, well, individual fans of your page who are exposed to a given piece of content. 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On the other side of that coin, if you’re currently advertising on Facebook but do little or no posting outside of what you’re already paying for, you’re losing out on significant brand-building opportunities and, more importantly, new, qualified Facebook users to whom you can advertise.   If Zuck and co. are willing to give a little extra ju ju to those folks who pay (even just a little) to play (including but by no means limited to your direct competition), your business can’t afford to miss out! A note on the data   We based our findings on the analysis of 6,439 unique Facebook pages. Some were advertisers, some simply had active pages but no discernable paid presence. Now, perhaps the most important caveat here is how we chose to define “advertiser.” An advertiser is someone with at least one active campaign within the last 90 days. Most of the Facebook accounts we analyzed and labeled “advertisers” had fewer than 5 active ad campaigns. With Facebook, thanks to the relationship between organic and paid performance, to reap the overwhelmingly positive benefits all you need to do is get started. You don’t even have to be a successful advertiser (though it certainly helps): you just need to be running Facebook ads and the boost to your organic reach metrics will materialize. Your business’s reachable audience on Facebook is drastically impacted by advertising: it amplifies the hell out of your content, improving reach. But while the caps for “Actual Audience” and “Maximum Free Audience” in the example above are exponentially lower than the “Paid Audience Potential” (611; 28,975; 1,920,000 respectively), there’s still a ton of value on the organic side of things. About the Author Allen Finn is a content marketing specialist and the reigning fantasy football champion at WordStream. He enjoys couth menswear, dank eats, and the dulcet tones of the Wu-Tang Clan. If you know what's good for you, you'll follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.
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