The Future is Tinkering

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There is nothing simple about technology. While all you need to write the most basic of websites is five or six lines of code, try programming something as complicated as a multimedia website like YouTube or a layered smartphone application like Facebook and you’re getting into millions of lines of code (potentially billions). But beyond design, programming, and delivering digital media content, there is also the extremely complicated business side of technology. So many websites, social networks, applications, and software packages are nothing more than ideas. There is no secret recipe that is impossible to crack. So to protect hardware and software manufacturers from intellectual property theft there’s patents, a federal government designation that legally plant a creator's flag on an idea, innovation, and invention. But following a recent Supreme Court decision that entire system is in trouble.

It may not seem like the sexiest of tech innovations but as far as impactful, printer ink cartridges have just sent a shockwave through tech history. In Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc. the United States Supreme Court heard arguments over if Impression Products could legally take the sold and dispense ink cartridges of Lexmark and refill them. As is the case with these court cases the weeds of details are thick and cumbersome, but the jist of the argument is Lexmark’s terms and conditions on it's ink cartridges says customers cannot refill them with anyone but Lexmark. Well Impression Products brazenly set those terms and conditions on fire and undercut the Lexmark refill business by a wide margin.

Lexmark’s legal claim to demand such a conditional sale was it's patent; anyone who bought lexmark and refilled it outside the Lexmark system was breaking patent law. Well after a long legal battle the Supreme Court torched that argument. In the majority decision the court found ‘A United States patent entitles the patent holder to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling [its] invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States”... When a patentee sells one of its products..., the patentee can no longer control that item through the patent laws—its patent rights are said to “exhaust.” The term “exhaust” is sending device manufacturers spinning.

A popular device to hack are gaming consoles. For decades Sony has fought hackers who try to enhance or jailbreak their systems for use beyond their manufactured intent. Just like Lexmark, Sony’s argument was the purchase of a Playstation gaming console is conditional on accepting the terms forbidding hacking. Well this Supreme Court decision just steamrolls that entire argument.

Now If you want to hack and tinker with your smartphone, laptop, camera, gaming system, drone, automobile, or even children’s toys the fear of patent retribution has evaporated. Now tech surgeons across the nation are within their full legal rights to splice open their electronics and create any type of franken-gadget they can conjure up. Not to mention sell that reimagined masterpiece with impunity.

Of course legal certainty does not mean warranty liberty. Lexmark and all patent exhaustion victims can still void warranties if any product is used in a manner beyond manufacturer’s intent. So before you spread your tools out to crack open your iPad and play with it’s guts, know you’re legally okay but if break it Apple will do nothing but laugh at you.

While this decision is a Christmas in May for solder junkies, it is only a single link in the tangle knots of the patent war chain. Nebulous patents still exist and carry legal weight for products that don’t actually exist, may exist in the near future, and are purely hypothetical. So don’t think your Hacked gadget will bring you fame and fortune. Chances are someone owns the patent on it and will crush your tinkering dreams.

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. For more tech insights, follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb


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