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How HP's decision to reject some ink cartridges reflects a much bigger problem

Office Space scene
You might feel like doing this to your printer if HP’s new software update has shut down third-party ink cartridges. (© 1999-Twentieth Century Fox-All rights reserved)

People don’t need another reason to swear at their printers, but HP (HPQ) is giving them one anyway.

That’s because as of Sept. 13, some of the company’s ink-jet printers began rejecting ink cartridges bought from other companies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those third-party alternatives to HP’s own cartridges — or at least, there was nothing wrong with them until an automatically installed software update began flagging them as “damaged.”

One obvious reason for the update? Third-party ink can be cheaper than HP’s own. Eliminating the ability to use a competitor’s ink ensures consumers will have to use HP’s. But that’s really only a symptom of a broader ailment: trying to use software to fix business problems that are best resolved by making a better sales pitch to customers.

Printer pain

HP began shipping these firmware updates to its business-oriented OfficeJet, OfficeJet Pro and OfficeJet Pro X models back in 2015, which means this anti-third-party-ink feature got switched on only recently. A company statement said these patches “maintain secure communications between the cartridge and the printer” in order to “protect HP’s innovations and intellectual property.”

HP declined our invitation to describe the innovations or intellectual property that might be threatened by using ink cartridges sold by other firms and that lack the proper “security chip.” Its statement did, however, note that “refilled or remanufactured cartridges” with HP’s circuitry will still work with the update in place. Note also that so far, this situation doesn’t seem to have affected HP’s home-use lineup of printers, which generally see less intense ink use than office models.

The best documentation of the actual behavior of the update, though, didn’t come from HP’s site, but from a third-party ink seller: Inkjet411.That’s a customer-relationship problem in its own right.

After skimming HP’s tech-support forums it’s clear customers are reacting exactly as you’d expect. Some have replaced third-party cartridges with HP’s own models (unless they can’t get the “offending” cartridge out of the printer at all), while others are vowing never to buy HP printers again or issuing a broader pledge not to buy products that automatically update.

Press coverage has been less than complimentary, featuring headlines like “HP detonates its timebomb” and “HP’s DRM sabotages off-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 constrains their ability to play or share a song, a TV show or a movie. In practice, “digital restrictions management” is a more accurate expansion of the abbreviation.

But HP isn’t any sort of pioneer in applying DRM outside of digital media. Companies have long been tempted to apply DRM as a bug-fix patch to business-model problems because the law gives it special protection: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “anti-circumvention clause” bans picking these digital locks when they “effectively protect” copyrighted material.

It’s less than clear that disabling the printer-ink DRM would menace anybody’s copyright. People going to that trouble almost certainly don’t care about copying a printer’s software; they just want to save a few bucks on ink. And when another printer vendor tried 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, holding that software that only functioned as a “lock-out code” didn’t qualify for the DMCA’s protection.

HP should be thinking about that lesson today. It should also remember a more recent episode involving the insertion of DRM into consumer hardware: the failed attempt by Keurig in the summer of 2014 to protect its coffee pods with special chips that were absent from cheaper, third-party alternatives. Customers hated the move and began sharing workarounds, sales tanked and in less than a year the company capitulated.

(Public-service 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 a French press, both of which accept ground beans from anywhere.)

Tainting automatic updates will hurt everybody

It’s tempting to end this story by laughing at HP’s self-made misery. But take another look at those pledges by HP shoppers to disable automatic software updates or avoid products with them entirely — then read the frightening story of how cybersecurity reporter Brian Krebs had his own blog hammered by a “distributed denial of service” attack launched from a “botnet” of hacked connected-household devices.

If we’re going to have an increasing number of devices in our homes — from cameras to, yes, printers — staying online all the time, we have to patch their software against flaws as quickly as possible. But after 40 years of home computing, it’s obvious that expecting everybody to download and install these patchesjust doesn’t work. You have to be able to trust the vendor to do the job for you, silently and automatically. And when vendors abuse that trust to fix problems that have nothing to do with security, it will cost all of us.

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Email Rob at; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.