“Patent exhaustion” isn’t exactly a thrilling pair of words. But that was the crux of a case the Supreme Court ruled on today that answered one incredibly important question for consumers: Can a company that sold you something use its patent on that product to control how you choose to use after you buy it?
Happily for consumers, the Court’s answer is, basically, “nope.”
The Court heard the case, Impression Products, Inc v Lexmark International, Inc, in March and issued a final ruling on the matter today.
The key question at play in the Lexmark case was one of patent exhaustion. Precedent has held that a patent-holder’s rights are used up — legally, exhausted — at the moment that it sells the thing it has a patent on to someone else. But in the modern era of microchips and DRM, some usage restrictions are suddenly enforceable long after an original item is sold. So question the Court was setting out to answer was: 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?
That case was, basically, a dispute between a company that makes printers (Lexmark) and a third-party company that makes and refills ink and toner cartridges for use in printers (Impression Products).