A US Copyright Office ruling could help the market for low-cost third-party printer ink cartridges.

The Copyright Office has decided that the controversial US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) does not block software developers from using reverse engineering to circumvent digital protection of copyright material if they do so to achieve interoperability with an independently created computer program.

Static Control Components (SCC) has been defending itself against a copyright infringement suit against it by Lexmark International. SCC makes computer chips that third-party manufacturers can use to make clones of the toner cartridges used in Lexmark printers. Lexmark has accused SCC of including copyright-protected Lexmark code in those chips, in violation of the DMCA.

SCC asked the Copyright Office to recommend several DMCA exemptions that would protect its efforts to defeat Lexmark's protection technology. The Office's response was that these were not required because existing DMCA statutes already allow the kind of reverse engineering in question.

SCC CEO Ed Swartz said: "We think the Copyright Office put to rest all of the objections Lexmark has raised."

Lexmark general counsel Vincent Cole countered: "It is inconceivable to us how anyone can consider this ruling a victory for Static Control."


SCC pulled its Smartek chips for Lexmark clone cartridges from the market earlier this year in accordance with a preliminary injunction in Lexmark's favour issued in February. A judge had found the company's reverse software engineering in violation of the DMCA. The case should be heard in full later this year.

The battle between the two companies may impact across the printer-cartridge industry. Printer manufacturers earn a lot of money from ink sales, but third-party manufacturers have taken some of that market by offering refurbished cartridges at a fraction of the cost. Printer manufacturers have been loath to see their profits hurt.

Lexmark last year began using a chip that communicates with its printers and verifies that the cartridge is from Lexmark in some of its printers. Without verification the cartridge does not work. SCC's Smartek chips mimic those produced by Lexmark and allow third-party cartridges to work.

"I think that what the Copyright Office saw here was that what was taking place was a test case," Swartz said. "If they came down on the side of Lexmark, what they would be doing would be to provide a path for companies to develop a legal electronic monopoly that would make the oil trust and the steel trust that Teddy Roosevelt broke up at the turn of the century look small."