drm vs. anti-competitve practices: what's the law say?

There are reports that Keurig is planning to introduce a drm scheme to it’s coffee pod system*. I know other companies (in almost every industry) in the past have used various mechanisms (proprietary connections, etc.) to lock customers into that companies products.

So, what did the courts say last time one of these companies was charged with ‘anti-competitive practices’?

Or has there ever been a legal case like this where a previously unlocked product was updated with a system that blocked unlicensed products?

And please, let’s not get sidetracked into a debate about the probable outcome of Keurig and this practice. Ars already has a 150+ comment thread going about the issue.

  • If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s those coffee machines that make 1-2 cups at a time using disposable pods that contain a premeasured amount of coffee and a filter. The idea being that you just peel of the seal and insert it in the machine, and a few minutes later you’ve got a cup of freshly-brewed coffee.

Most printer companies do this with their ink cartridges, right? Were there any lawsuits against them?

I thought that was why they came out with the new V-Cup crap that nobody seems to be buying. Didn’t simply the patent run out on K-Cups? I guess I could Google but I spent some amount of time looking into this at the store before I bought mine. One of the decision points was that K-Cup prices would drop after the patent ran out due to increased competition.

Nope, you can buy third-party ink cartridges for almost any modern printer at many reputable stores (Office Depot, Best Buy).

AFAIK they’re not intentionally trying to prevent aftermarket ink cartridges, that’s just a side effect of not trying to make a universal (or even manufacturer-wide) standard for their ink cartiridges.

Keurig is considering the addition to their coffee makers of a mechanism (e.g. rfid tags) that would prevent the device from operating with any non-licensed coffee pods.

On mine, you don’t peel anything. You insert the pod, close the machine, and it pokes a hole in the pod to make the drink.

We useta call those “juice boxes.” :smiley:

It’s called Vendor lock-in
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vendor_lock-in
and it is quite common. You probably already use a lot of products (eg, razor blades) that are not compatible with compettitors.

But here if you take it the step further of using electronic means (software etc) to determine if it is the vendors own, then attempts to circumvent that security will probably be a violation of the DMCA, just because the DMCA is such an overly broad POS.

I’d bet the law as it stands would protect Keurig and not the consumer, but I haven’t really researched it.

Actually, Epson already tried using the DMCA to prevent third party toner cartidge manufacturers from bypassing Epson’s lock-in mechanism*. The 6th circuit court of appeals ruled the lock-in mechanism wasn’t copyrightable and the access controls were not legally protected.

However, that just means companies can’t always stop people from bypassing a lock-in mechanism. I’m wondering if the law actually prevents them from including a lock-in mechanism with no (reasonably) arguable benefit for the consumer.

By what reasoning would the law prevent a company from using a lock-in mechanism? There are many out there today.

Again, I’m not really up to date on all of this but I think the answer is, it depends on the jurisdiction. In the EU for example, Apple and Microsoft have both been slapped on the wrist in cases where they have been held as having abused their position of market dominance with lock-in’s that negatively effect consumers. In the US this is less likely to happen, it seems.

If I have the time I will look up some relevant cases for you.

Oh yeah, and rather than “preventing” what the law does is have a court look at the totality of the facts, after a claim has been made.

Broadly there are only two ways to enforce vendor lock-in:

  1. Patent your device and consumables, which grants a temporary monopoly
  2. Use obfuscation and trade secrets to interfere with third-party vendors.

Legally speaking a third party cannot violate a patent, but they can reverse engineer out-of-patent devices as much as they want. Modern encryption done right can make that nearly impossible. Lexmark (not Epson) used an encrypted authentication system on their ink cartridges, and then tried to use copyright laws to go after third-party ink cartridge vendors. However the courts disagreed, and ruled that the authentication code was not protected by copyright.

Back to the OP: I bet Keurig will have patents for their new machines and consumables, which grants them another temporary monopoly. Other companies are still free to make generic K-cups and machines to use them in.

This thing seems to be some copy of some crap Nestle invented. I wonder if they can sue for that.

Law does not allow for ‘making things dumber’. The idea is that if it’s so stupid, no one will buy it. Sadly it doesn’t account for agressive advertising/buyer information overload, or just plain stupidity at all.

The microsoft and apple cases that had any legal worth were solely about stealing intellectual property. Thus the ‘slap on the wrist’. If making things stupider was a legal merit, we’d all be using UNIX now, because they’d have been sued out of existance.