Epson faces consumer suits

Consumers fed up with the high cost of ink jet cartridges are taking Epson America to court, accusing it of manipulating equipment in order to sell more ink. A lawsuit filed Friday in District Court in Texas claims some models of Epson ink jet cartridges prematurely block Epson printers from functioning even though "substantial ink" remains in the cartridge.

The suit, filed in Jefferson County, is the third such suit involving the same law firm. Like the others, it seeks class action status and asks a judge to order Epson to notify customers that replacement cartridges may still be usable even when Epson's equipment says they're spent, and to compensate customers who discard the usable cartridges.

Harnes Keller LLP of New York, together with local counsel, filed similar claims in a San Mateo, California, Superior Court on Monday, and also at Kings County, New York, Supreme Court in August. Neither case has gone to trial.

An Epson spokesperson declines to comment on any of the lawsuits, beyond calling the initial New York lawsuit "unfounded."

Chip and Cartridge Challenge

The problem is with Epson ink jet cartridges outfitted with an Intellidge microchip, say Harnes Keller attorneys. Because the Intellidge chip stops Epson printers from operating until the ink jet cartridge is replaced, the plaintiffs charge that Epson is in breach of contract with its customers, who are entitled to use all the ink in the cartridge.

The cartridges actually contain up to 38 percent more usable ink after the Intellidge chip cuts them off, according to research cited in the suits.

"Because of Epson's deceptive practices, consumers have been forced to purchase replacement inkjet cartridges prematurely and have paid for ink in inkjet cartridges they can never use," the complaint reads.

Epson responds that a safety reserve of ink remains inside its cartridges after they expire to prevent damage that can occur to the print head if the cartridge runs dry.

The lawyers say they are seeking class status in order to represent anyone who purchased an Epson brand ink jet cartridge fitted with an Intellidge chip.

Not Running on Empty

The complaint also cites research by the British magazine Which! Online. Testers there were able to override the Intellidge chip on Epson cartridges and print between 17 and 38 percent more "good-quality pages."

The testers used a US$30 chip resetting mechanism to override the Epson printer chip. Which! Online also reports "premature warnings" of low or no ink using ink jet cartridges from Hewlett-Packard Co., Canon Inc., and Lexmark International Inc. that continued to produce quality printouts.

Experts say most expired ink jet cartridges, including those from Epson, will have a certain amount of waste ink left over in spent cartridges. How much is left over depends on the manufacturer. Imaging expert Jim Forrest, with Lyra Research, calls the lawsuit against Epson "frivolous." He says an Epson ink jet cartridge that runs completely dry could damage the hardware's printing mechanism. "If Epson says consumers will get 100 printed pages based on its specs, then a consumer will likely get that," Forrest says. "Yes, there may be some ink left over, but that is by design."

Forrest says Intellidge chips are used to monitor the amount of ink inside the ink jet cartridge. The chip does not measure the real volume; instead, it estimates the amount of ink used and predicts when the cartridge will be empty. The chip transmits estimated ink levels to the printer, which alerts the user with a screen message.

"The printer will automatically stop working when there is no more safely usable ink in the cartridge," Epson explains in a written statement. The company says users get all the ink they pay for, because Epson charges for cartridges based on usable ink volume and printed pages per cartridge.

The company provides yield information on printer packaging and on its site, but not on ink jet cartridges.

Related Battles

Smart chips like the Intellidge have raised a firestorm of criticism before. Lexmark recently won a challenge to its cartridge return program. The company offers a discount to consumers who agree to return used cartridges only to Lexmark for refilling or recycling. The policy was unsuccessfully challenged by the Arizona Cartridge Remanufacturers Association, which wanted to be able to refill and resell Lexmark cartridges.

A separate lawsuit brought by Lexmark against Static Control Components Inc. of Sanford, North Carolina, is still pending. In that suit, Lexmark has charged that a microchip, the Smartek, made and used by SCC in remanufactured laser printer toner cartridges to defeat Lexmark's technological controls, violates Epson's copyright.

Third-party companies that remanufacture ink jet and toner cartridges complain Intellidge and similar chips make it hard to refill and reuse empty cartridges. Remanufactured ink jet cartridges will work with all Epson printers, although Epson says users won't get the advantage of advanced features like ink level monitors without the Intellidge chip.

Customers, of course, like the lower price tags often offered by third-party ink cartridges. They want the option of buying the no-name cartridges without worrying that using them will damage their printers.

Epson Takes Heat in Europe

In a related matter involving Epson's use of the Intellidge chip, the Dutch Consumer Association recently backed off from its allegation that Epson customers are unfairly charged for ink they can never use.

In July, it advised its 640,000 members to boycott Epson ink jet printers. The Netherlands-based organization urged Epson to modify its printers so they would continue printing until no ink remains in the cartridge. The group also suggested consumers use a third-party mechanism to override the Intellidge chip.

Epson responded with advertisements in several national Dutch newspapers calling the tip "dangerous advice." Epson representatives told Associated Press reporters it is considering legal action against the Dutch Consumers Association.

Later in July, the Dutch consumer group retracted its call for a nationwide boycott of Epson products. It issued a statement conceding that residual ink left in Epson cartridges is necessary for printers to function properly.

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Tom Spring

PC World
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