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Hewlett-Packard takes on multiple third party suppliers for patent infringement

Issue 0927/3 – In a mass lawsuit, Hewlett-Packard has filed a complaint against a total of eleven third party supplies manufacturers and resellers in an attempt to block the importation and sales of ink cartridges and other related items into the US. Hewlett-Packard alleges that the items infringe patent protection on its intellectual property.

Seven of these companies are based in China while four are US companies:

China

  • Mipo International Ltd.
  • Ourway Image Co., Ltd.
  • Shanghai Angel Printer Supplies Co. Ltd.
  • Shenzhen Print Media Co., Ltd.
  • Tatrix International
  • Zhuhai Gree Magneto-Electric Co., Ltd.
  • Zhuhai National Resources & Jingjie Imaging Products Co., Ltd.

US

  • InkPlusToner.com
  • Mipo America
  • SmartOne
  • Comptree

It is Hewlett-Packard’s contention that these companies are engaged in activities that directly affect sales of inkjet supplies in the United States by (one or more of): selling for importation into the US; unlicensed importation into the US; and selling patent-infringing products within the US. Four US patents are listed as being infringed, largely associated with the physical ink tank, tank/printer interface and alignment mechanism and the ink management chip of the HP 02 (Europe – HP 363) cartridges.

As is customary in these cases, Hewlett-Packard is looking for an exclusion order on the 13 products in question, together with a ‘cease and desist’ order that prevents the companies concerned from importing and selling the offending products.

Interestingly, the ‘cease and desist’ order goes much further than the simple import and sale of the items. It includes:

  • demonstrating the products (i.e. attempting to market their company using the offending products as samples)
  • using the products (i.e. in printers in their own offices)
  • offering the products for sale (e.g. trying to shift the products to another party)
  • transferring, moving or shipping product already in the US (e.g. trying to hide the evidence or re-exporting the products)

With high prices pushing many printer users towards cheaper third party ink products, printer manufacturers are rightly concerned about the volume of compatible third party inks now being sold for their printers. Many are simply refills (used cartridges that are cleaned, refilled and remarketed as ‘remanufactured’ cartridges), while others (such as the HP 02/363 cartridges) are compatibles that are manufactured by the third party as a copy of the original.

It is this second category that is the subject of this complaint by Hewlett-Packard. This type of cartridge (ink tank with no integrated print head) is popular for third party manufacture simply because it does not include the print head which cannot realistically or economically be manufactured by anyone other than the original printer manufacturer. This means that (at the base level) all that is needed is a simple ink container (plastic tank) – no technology.

HP02/363 cartridgesHP02/363 cartridges

However, printer manufacturers are building increasing degrees of technology into these ink tanks to make it more difficult for third parties to copy the products without infringing patents. As in this instance, the techniques used can include: sophisticated moulding of the tank to ensure efficient supply of the ink or convenient/effective positioning and handling of the tank by the user; ink/printer interfaces to ensure consistent flow of ink into the printer; memory chips that provide ink management and usage information functions to the user; and, no doubt, many more besides.

Printer manufacturers argue that these techniques provide users with the most reliable and enjoyable printing experience and that they, and they alone, are able to provide this experience as it was designed. The contention is that using third party supplies, because replicating the cartridge and memory chip in their entirety involves infringing patents, users will not benefit from this high level of printing experience.

Whatever the practical issues involved in reverse engineering a product and manufacturing a copy (whether sold as a compatible or as a counterfeit), the practice is theft and infringes the inventors’ rights to enjoy the benefits of their intellectual property. Hence the intensity and determination with which companies like Hewlett-Packard (along with many others) pursue those third parties that show blatant contempt for the law.

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