Makers and resellers of third-party ink-jet printer cartridges and refills polled at the CeBit show in Germany on Saturday are critical of the way Epson has slammed them with lawsuits to protect its lucrative cartridge business.

Epson, the world's number two printer maker, filed complaints against 25 companies in the US and UK in February seeking to bar the manufacture, import, or distribution of aftermarket ink cartridges in those countries.

Consumer-friendly business model?

Aftermarket cartridges typically cost much less than official cartridges and threaten the printer maker's business model, which relies on selling a low-cost printer and making profits from future sales of ink.

"They're stealing money from customers. They give them a free printer and then steal their money," said Brian Suh, marketing director of South Korea's EC World, which makes ink-cartridge refill kits that allow consumers to replenish used cartridges.

Suh said he thinks printer makers have gotten steadily greedier in the last few years and consumers are being treated unfairly. However, that view wasn't shared by all at CeBit.

"We are okay with what Epson is doing," said Richard Keller, manager of technical engineering at 3T Supplies. The company, which trades under the Peach name, develops compatible cartridges in Switzerland and manufactures them in the Czech Republic.

"Low-quality copies are not good because the whole price system collapses and it hurts the industry," he said. "But the way they [Epson] are doing it is very aggressive."

Legal case history

Epson fought similar battles successfully in 2005. It reached settlements with Multi-Union Trading of Hong Kong and the UK's Environmental Business Products and CybaHouse that saw all three companies stop importing and selling Epson-compatible cartridges in the US and UK markets.

The cases publicised by Seiko Epson to date have ended with out-of-court settlements, so the industry remains unsure just exactly where the line between patent infringement and innovation lies.

"The whole situation with Epson, the patent issue: we have to be careful," said 3T Supplies' Keller. "We believe our products don't infringe their patents. We have developed around them. We have our own patents."

Big fish feed on the small

The lack of a clear legal ruling is enabling Epson to go after small companies, said Udo Rossner, head of sales at JR Inkjet Deutschland.

"As long as there is not a court case they can go around shouting because they know tiny little companies can't go to court," he said. "If all the manufacturers got together and defended it as one it would be a big problem [for Seiko Epson]."

Rossner believes Epson will never be able to completely control the market, especially due to its international nature, but that it might be easier to control it through legal means in the US than in Europe.

In the US it's easy because corporations have more rights than consumers," he said. "But in continental Europe the consumer has damn hard rights. If they lose one case, they lose it all."