US Supreme Court could hear Charleston company, Lexmark case

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A small Charleston company that refills and resells empty toner cartridges could soon be defending itself before the U.S. Supreme Court in a dispute that could affect huge tech companies and pharmaceutical firms.

Lexmark, a Lexington, Kentucky-based printing corporation, sued Impression Products, accusing the company of patent infringement for selling its cartridges, The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported.

At issue is what is known as the first-sale doctrine, a principle limiting a patent holder's rights after a product has been sold once.

Impression Products argued Lexmark's patents on its cartridges are no longer effective after the cartridges are sold, allowing the smaller company to sell them freely. Lexmark cartridges can cost up to hundreds of dollars, and Impression Products sells used ones at a lower price.

In February, a federal court sided with Lexmark, saying the corporation's patent rights weren't exhausted, regardless of whether the cartridges were being purchased from U.S. or foreign suppliers — Impression Products has purchased toner cartridges from Canadian suppliers in the past.

Last month, the federal government recommended the Supreme Court review the case.

Impression Products President Eric Smith explained that while this doesn't guarantee that the justices will review the case, it sharply increases the probability of it happening.

The implications of the case go beyond ink cartridges, as Samsung and Google have backed Impression Products' argument. The tech giants operate foreign supply chains that would have to jump through additional hoops if the first-sale doctrine did not apply for foreign purchases. Pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer have supported Lexmark, with a Lexmark victory likely giving their own patents greater protection.

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