HP sues firms that refill ink cartridges

Hewlett-Packard sues two companies that sell refilled ink cartridges, but it stops short of trying to block the refill business altogether.

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 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.
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