Yesterday the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Lexmark v. Static Control. The Court said, in effect, that Lexmark could not leverage copyright and DMCA claims to keep a competitor from making toner cartridges that work with Lexmark printers. This reversed a lower court decision.
[Backstory: Lexmark-brand toner cartridges contain a short computer program (about 50 bytes). Software in a Lexmark printer checks whether newly inserted toner cartridges contain that program, and refuse to work with cartridges that don’t. Static Control makes a chip containing the same short program, so that third-party cartridges containing the Static Control chip can work in Lexmark printers. Lexmark sued, claiming copyright infringement (for copying the program) and DMCA violations (for circumventing the program-verification step). The original trial court issued a preliminary injunction against Static Control, which the Sixth Circuit just overruled.]
The ruling is very good news on both copyright and DMCA fronts. The fundamental issue in both fronts was whether a company could use copyright or the DMCA, in conjunction with a technical lockout mechanism, to prevent a competitor from making products that worked with (or interoperated) with its products.
The interesting copyright issue is whether a copyright owner can leverage copyright to limit interoperability. Consider this hypothetical: Alice writes a computer program which I’ll call A. Alice writes a copyrighted poem, and she programs A so that it will accept input only from programs that first send a copy of the poem. Alice gives permission for Bob’s program B to send the poem, but she refuses permission to everybody else. When Charlie makes a program that sends the poem, Alice sues him from infringing the poem’s copyright. Charlie proves that there is no way for his program to interoperate with A, except by sending the poem. Should Charlie be liable for copyright infringement?
This hypothetical doesn’t exactly match the facts of the present case, as far as I can tell, but it’s pretty close. The Court ruled that Static Control was allowed to copy Lexmark’s short computer program (which is analogous to the poem), to the extent that that copying was required in order to interoperate. So Lexmark could not leverage its copyright to prevent interoperability.
On the DMCA side, Lexmark had argued (and the lower court had agreed) that the printer mechanism that checked for the presence of the small toner-cartridge program was, under the DMCA, a technical protection mechanism that controlled access to Lexmark’s software, and that Static Control had circumvented that mechanism in violation of the DMCA. The key word here is “access”. The lower court said that the mechanism controlled “access” because it controlled the user’s ability to make use of the software, and “to make use of” is one definition of the word “access”. The Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that this was not the kind of “access” that Congress meant to protect in passing the DMCA. What Congress meant by “access”, the Court said, is the ability to read the program itself, not the ability to interact with or use it. Since Lexmark’s technical mechanism did not control the ability to read the program, it was not an access control in the sense meant by the DMCA, and hence Static Control had not violated the DMCA.
This is consistent with another court’s ruling in an earlier case, Chamberlain v. Skylink, involving garage door openers.
To sum up, this ruling is a big victory for interoperability. It also strikes an important blow against one overreaching reading of the DMCA, by limiting the scope of the access control provision. The DMCA is still deeply problematic in other ways, but we can hope that this ruling has narrowed its scope a bit.