HP detonates its timebomb: printers stop accepting third party ink en masse

On September 13, owners of HP OfficeJet, OfficeJet Pro and OfficeJet Pro X began contacting third-party ink vendors by the thousand, reporting that their HP printers no longer accepted third-party ink.

The last HP printer firmware update was pushed in March 2016, and it appears that with that update (or possibly an earlier one), HP had set a time-bomb ticking in its customers' printers counting down to the date when they'd begin refusing to follow their owners' orders.

HP says that the March update's purpose was "to protect HP's innovations and intellectual property."

In 2003, Lexmark (then an IBM division) sued Static Controls, saying that the company had violated Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by reverse-engineering its toner cartridges and refilling old ones that could successfully pass Lexmark's checks for valid, full cartridges.

Lexmark had an "I am empty" bit in their cartridges; when the cartridge ran out of toner, the bit flipped to "true." Even if you refilled your cartridge, your printer wouldn't use it, because it saw the cartridge as empty. Static Controls figured out how to flip that bit back to "false."

Lexmark invoked Section 1201 of the DMCA, which makes it a criminal and civil offense to bypass an "effective means of access control" for a copyrighted work. The DC Circuit court asked Lexmark which copyrighted work was being protected by its access control, and it argued that the checking routine itself was copyrighted, as well as the "Empty" bit. The court found that the DMCA could only be invoked where there was a copyrighted work apart from the access control, and that a single bit didn't qualify as a copyrightable work. Lexmark lost.

(Coda: Lexmark was eventually sold to Static Controls)

HP will likely raise similar arguments when, inevitably, its competitors start making cartridges that trick your printer into obeying you, rather than HP. But there's a potential difference between HP and Lexmark: namely that HP cartridges now have lots of copyrighted software, not just "I am empty" bits and access control systems.

This isn't just true of HP cartridges: software, and access controls that give manufacturers the legal right to reach into your home and boss you around via your gadgets, has proliferated into pacemakers, insulin pumps and implanted defibrillators; into thermostats, baby monitors, and home security systems; into cars and tractors; into voting machines and seismic dampers in skyscrapers.

Worst of all is that security researchers who disclose defects in systems covered by Section 1201 of the DMCA face civil and criminal penalties, and so they routinely sit on these disclosures, putting us all at risk. Remember, HP printers have already been successfully targeted by attacks that let bad guys take over your whole network just by tricking you into printing a single page. Once HP can invoke the DMCA to shut down these disclosures, the bugs will continue to fester, but our ability to know about them in a timely fashion will end.

That's why EFF is suing the US government to invalidate section 1201 of the DMCA: because "owning property" means having the "sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe" and if every software-enabled thing can be remote-controlled against your wishes and your interests, then we have abolished personal property altogether, in favor of a neo-feudal system of perpetual corporate ownership -- and because an age in which our computers hold our lives in their hands cannot be an age in which it is illegal to tell you whether your computer is working correctly, for obvious reasons.

One contributor to HP's support forum said the firmware had been updated "without my permission" and an error message now said the ink cartridge was damaged.

"I use it daily for work and now am in trouble," he wrote.

"Others must have the same problem. Is there a way to stop HP from doing this to people who have bought their equipment?"

The HP OfficeJet, OfficeJet Pro and OfficeJet Pro X printers are affected.

HP printers start rejecting budget ink cartridges [Zoe Kleinman/BBC]

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