LaserJets are wired into the history of the HP 3000. Hewlett-Packard never would have developed the printer that changed HP without a 3000 line in place. The business printer was designed to give minicomputer users a way to print without tractor-feed paper, fan-fold greenbar or dot-matrix daisywheels. That was more than 30 years ago. A Supreme Court decision on laser printing this week has a chance at affecting the future of HP's 3000 iron.
The ruling handed down this week was focused on a lawsuit between an HP rival, Lexmark, and a company that builds and sells Lexmark replacement toner cartridges. Lexmark tried to assert that its patent protection for laser toner cartridges extends to the buyers of the cartridges. Nobody could refill that Lexmark-built cartridge but Lexmark, the print giant said.
The upstart Impression Products has been buying used cartridges from the customers and refilling them. If this sounds like healthy commerce to you, then you agree with the decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts this week. Even though a company can protect a patent as it sells the product, the patent doesn't hold if the product is resold, or modified and resold. An article at WashingtonPost.com — where 3000 legend Eugene Volokh leads a popular law blog — has all the details.
HP is not in the story except for a line at the bottom, which notes how seminal the LaserJet remains in the story of printing. An earlier edition, the correction notes, used the word laserjet instead of laser printer. The 3000's future ownership might ride on how courts determine the Supreme's decision. You can resell a car that you've modified and break no law. HP has long maintained the HP iron called a 3000 is no vehicle, though, even while it carries the magic rider called MPE.
As a result of the disputes over ownership, HP said that its 3000 iron doesn't exist, and cannot be owned, without a license for MPE/iX. The ownership chain flowed from the license, the vendor said. It was like a car in the sense that you didn't have a vehicle fit for the road if you didn't have plates. HP owned the plates (the software) and only licensed those bits. MPE/iX has never been sold, they said. Only licensed.
The new court ruling states that a manufacturer's rights to a product that's been sold stop once the maker (or a reseller for the vendor) sell the product. That old Volkswagen Beetle you bought and tricked out for dune buggy status? VW has no hold on how you attach mufflers, or even if the teenagers down the block pay you for the modified Bug.
Tying a physical product to a digital controlling component (HP's 3000 hardware to MPE/iX) was a strategy the community wanted to battle. Wirt Atmar, founder of AICS Research and indefatigable MPE advocate, looked into untying HP's MPE-3000 bundle. His pursuit got as far as a Chicago legal office, where well-paid lawyers said that winning such a suit would involve battling more well-paid lawyers. Atmar had to park the community's pursuit vehicle.
The Post article said the next step in the evolution of US law will be to determine if digital products can be sold with an ownership that protects the maker's rights forever. Since the matter in the Supreme Court covered digital parts for a computer peripheral, the writer must mean digital products which don't have a physical form. Software comes to mind.
Every vendor except one in the 3000 ecosystem shouldn't worry. No one but the system maker who builds an OS has ever tied software to physical hardware to make the former the guardian of the latter. Software companies which offer virtualizations of systems utilitize the best available licenses to make emulators legal. Now the rules about ownership status and rights are changing, thanks to a Court that's not always been on the side of the little guy.
The little guys who own HP's 3000 iron have been told they need an HP license of MPE/iX to boot their systems. It's also true for virtualized systems. If those products sold to customers — HP's iron, the virtualization software — are untied from HP Enterprise concerns, pricing might change. Even more importantly for the future, modifications might flow into the key components of a 3000's software, if a court rules that modding up your software doesn't break patent protections.
Source code is inside the community that would make that modding possible, but it's been tied to a license that prohibits using the source for anything but support of customers. That's why any changes to CALENDAR needed at the end of 2027 must be applied customer-by-customer. Releasing an MPE/iX 8.0 isn't permitted under today's law. If those HP licenses were ruled illegal, it could change the future of owning a 3000—perhaps because for the first time, a customer could truly own the box, instead of paying a fee to license the software essential to making a 3000 compute.