Do you remember signing a contract when you opened a printer ink cartridge? Didn't think so. But so-called box-top licenses can tell you what to do with what you buy, warn consumer watchdogs at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, thanks to a ruling this August by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A collection of third-party printer cartridge makers sued Lexmark for its "prebate" program, which sells refurbished laser toner at a discount. The catch? As the New York Times reports, the toner box orders you "to return the empty cartridge only to Lexmark for remanufacturing and recycling." In other words, you shouldn't take the cartridge to another company or even throw it away. The court said Lexmark has the right to tell you how to use its patented products.
While it's environmentally friendly for Lexmark to refurbish cartridges, digital rights advocates fear the ruling could set a precedent preventing DIYers from modifying their gadgets (celebrated in popular blogs such as Hackaday). Proponents of fair use argue that we should be able to do what we want with the gizmos we pay for.
What if you're itching to make your printer's inkjet cartridges spray Jackson Pollock-like art on public walls? Could the printer vendor slap an agreement on its ink tanks telling you not to commit grafitti? Apply this idea to other products, and you can imagine the slippery slope. For example, could Kraft stamp a box of Velveeta with rules forbidding you to melt its cheesestuff on third-party nachos? OK, so that's a stretch. But ACRA v. Lexmark could have an interesting impact on future copyright fights.