Two consumers allege in a proposed class action lawsuit that Epson America has unlawfully attempted to stamp out third-party competition by preventing its printers from being able to use non-Epson ink cartridges. According to the plaintiffs, Epson has utilized software and/or firmware updates to purposely disable printers that use third-party ink cartridges, effectively ruining proposed class members’ printers while forcing others to buy the defendant’s “significantly more expensive” replacements.
As the 30-page complaint tells it, Long Beach-based Epson never informed consumers that certain software updates would hamstring their printers, and, to the contrary, represented that “software and/or firmware updates will improve the printers and fix known issues.”
The sale of replacement ink cartridges is a significant revenue source for Epson, with the products commanding anywhere from $10 to upward of $150 for those used in high-end printers, the lawsuit begins. In fact, according to the case, the cost of replacement ink cartridges over a printer’s lifespan turns out to be “significantly larger than the cost of the printer itself.” With that in mind, the case notes that Epson-brand replacement cartridges cost far more than those made by third-party companies. Ostensibly aware of this reality, Epson, the lawsuit says, acknowledged in its 2018 annual report that cheaper, third party-made replacement ink cartridges pose a serious threat to the company’s bottom line and overall market share.
Nowhere in that 2018 report, however, does Epson mention that disabling consumers’ printers will help with its market share problem, the lawsuit scathes. The report instead offers “more benign methods” for boosting Epson’s sales, such as emphasizing “the quality of genuine Epson brand” ink cartridges and enhancing customer experience by developing, for instance, printers with high-capacity ink tanks. According to the plaintiffs, however, Epson, rather than maintain its supposed commitments to the brand and customer experience, has crossed the line by weaponizing software and firmware updates to keep other companies from encroaching any further on its replacement ink cartridge business.
Allegedly unauthorized software, firmware updates
Consumers who buy an Epson printer must agree to the company’s software license in order to use the machine, the case continues. Highlighted in the complaint is the second paragraph of the license, which states that the defendant may, from time to time, issue updated versions of software, and that the software may automatically connect to Epson’s servers in order to check for available bug fixes, patches, upgrades, plug-ins or additional enhanced functions.
While it’s by no means uncommon for consumers to have to agree to a company’s licensing terms and conditions—which these days tends to include signing away your right to pursue class action litigation—in order to use a product or service, proposed class members, in no uncertain terms, did not authorize Epson to disable their printers to prevent the use of cheaper, third-party ink cartridges, according to the lawsuit. Epson, the plaintiffs allege, has overstepped its authority by disabling consumers’ printers for the sake of protecting its business interests, an abuse the suit says is rooted in “misrepresentations and omissions” with regard to what the defendant claims is the purpose of its software and firmware updates.
The beginning of the end (for some printers)
Once a consumer who uses a third-party replacement ink cartridge installs one of Epson’s updates, their printer will plainly let them know, from the defendant’s perspective, that’s not going to fly. From the lawsuit (emphasis ours):
Specifically, after Updates are installed to detect and disable third-party ink cartridges, Epson printers display a message claiming that the printer did not ‘recognize’ a third-party ink cartridge when installed.
The error message that the printers displayed after Updates were installed, misrepresented the cause of the printer issue, suggesting that the previously functioning third-party cartridges were broken or not installed properly when, instead, the updated software simply disables replacement ink cartridges that would otherwise work.
These error messages are in direct contradiction to Epson’s representations to Plaintiffs and class members that its software and firmware Updates were intended to fix or improve printer functionality.”
At no time were proposed class members informed by the defendant that accepting apparently necessary software updates would possibly disable their printers, the case stresses, much less “force” them to buy Epson-brand replacements. Going a step further, the lawsuit stresses that there’s nothing inherently wrong with third-party replacement cartridges and many Epson printers that forego the purported updates “function without issue.”
Who does the suit look to cover?
The lawsuit, which alleges violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, among other consumer protection statutes, looks to represent a nationwide and Connecticut- and California-only classes of consumers who owned or purchased an Epson printer within the to-be-defined limitations period.