How HP’s decision to reject some ink cartridges reflects a much larger problem

You may feel like doing this with your printer when the new HP third party ink cartridge software update has shut down. (© 1999-20th Century Fox-All Rights Reserved)

People don’t need another reason to berate their printers, but HP (HPQ) gives them one anyway.

That’s because as of September 13, some of the company’s inkjet printers were launched Rejection of ink cartridges purchased from other companies. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with these third-party alternatives to HP’s own cartridges—or at least there was nothing wrong with them until an automatically installed software update began marking them as “corrupt.”

An obvious reason for the update? Third-party ink can be cheaper than HP’s. Eliminating the ability to use a competitor’s ink ensures consumers must use HP’s. But that’s really just a symptom of a broader affliction: trying to use software to fix business problems that are best solved by better sales pitching with customers.

printer pain

HP began shipping these firmware updates to its business-focused OfficeJet, OfficeJet Pro, and OfficeJet Pro X models back in 2015, meaning this anti-third party ink feature was only recently enabled. A corporate statement said these patches “maintain secure communication between the cartridge and the printer” to “protect HP’s innovations and intellectual property.”

HP declined our invitation to describe the innovations or intellectual property that might be compromised by using ink cartridges from other companies that lack the right “security chip”. However, its statement states that “replenished or remanufactured Cartridges” with HP circuits also work with the update. Also note that this situation has not yet impacted HP’s home printers, which generally use less ink than office models.

However, the best documentation of the update’s actual behavior did not come from HP’s website, but from a third-party ink supplier: Inkjet411.This is a standalone customer relationship issue.

After skimming HP Tech Support Forums It’s clear that customers are responding exactly as you would expect. Some have replaced third-party cartridges with HP’s own models (unless You cannot remove the “offending” cartridge from the printer at all), while others swear Never buy HP printers again or to make a more comprehensive promise not to buy products that are automatically updated.

Press coverage was far from free, and featured headlines such as “HP sets off its time bomb” and “HP’s DRM sabotages non-brand printer ink.”

We’ve seen this movie before

DRM, or Digital Rights Management, has long been a four-letter word in digital media circles, where customers have found that such software artificially limits their ability to play or share a song, TV show, or movie. In practice, “Digital Restriction Management” is a more accurate extension of the acronym.

But HP isn’t a pioneer in applying DRM outside of digital media. Companies have long been tempted to apply DRM as a bug fix patch for business model problems because of the law granting it special protection: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act “Escape Clause” prohibits picking these digital locks if they “effectively protect” copyrighted material..

It is less than clear that disabling the printer ink DRM would compromise anyone’s copyright. People who bother to do this almost certainly don’t bother copying a printer’s software; You just want to save a few bucks on ink. And when another printer vendor attempted to use the DMCA against a competing ink vendor – Lexmark’s 2002 lawsuit against Static Control Components – The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided with the defense and held so Software that only acted as a “lock code” did not qualify for the protection of the DMCA.

HP should reflect on that lesson today. It was also meant to commemorate a more recent episode that discussed injecting DRM into consumer hardware: Keurig’s failed attempt to do so in the summer of 2014 protects its coffee pods with special chips which were absent from cheaper third-party alternatives. Customers hated the move and started share workaroundsSales tanked and in less than a year the company capitulated.

(Public announcement from Yahoo Finance: If you want to save money on coffee, don’t buy a coffee pod system at all and stick with a traditional drip coffee maker or French press, both of which accept ground beans from anywhere.)

The spoiling of automatic updates will harm everyone

It’s tempting to end this story with a laugh at HP’s self-inflicted misery. But take another look at HP buyers’ pledges to turn off automatic software updates or avoid products with them entirely — and then read the chilling story of how cybersecurity reporter Brian Krebs ran a distributed denial of service attack on his own blog launched by a “botnet” of hacked connected home devices.

As we have more and more devices in our homes—from cameras to printers—that stay online all the time, we need to patch their software for bugs as soon as possible. But after 40 years of home computing, it’s obvious that expecting everyone to download and install those patches just doesn’t work. You have to be able to trust the provider do the work for you, silently and automatically. And when vendors abuse that trust to fix non-security issues, it’s going to cost us all.

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E-mail rob at [email protected]; Follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.

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