Ryan Sullivan was trying to print out a tweet about peeing on toilet seats when his HP printer told him it wouldn’t happen. Sullivan’s printer had plenty of ink, but HP had remotely disabled his printer because he’d cancelled a service called Instant Ink—a monthly service charge HP levies for the pleasure of using ink cartridges in certain printers. Sullivan had a printer full of ink, but no way to print until he reactivated his subscription through HP.
Printers have always been the worst piece of computer equipment. They’re unreliable and the ink is expensive. As printers became cheaper and more reliable, manufacturers began charging ludicrous prices for ink because they were no longer making much money on the printers themselves. The high ink prices created a robust third party market that the manufactures—HP in particular—attacked by using Digital Rights Management updates to brick printers using off brand printer cartridges. The use of third-party ink cartridges and the circumvention of printer DRM even became an important Supreme Court case in Impression Products v. Lexmark. The Supreme Court ruled that Lexmark had exhausted its patent to its printer cartridges, and that Impression Products was free to refill used ink cartridges and resell them.
HP, Epsion, and Lexmark attempted to use DRM to force people to purchase expensive printer cartridges, but retreated from the practice after backlash from customers and consumer rights groups and the Supreme Court case.
The Instant Ink subscription is just the latest twist.
According to HP’s website, buying into the instant ink system allows you to stop worrying about ever buying ink again. For $4.99 per month, a customer can print up to 100 pages. When the toner is running out of ink, HP will simply ship you more free of charge. It sounds like a good deal, but in practice it can lead to a situation where the consumer is paying a monthly subscription that costs way more than just buying ink as you need it. The catch is that if you stop paying for the subscription, you can no longer print—even if the ink cartridge in your printer is still full.
Sullivan said that’s what happened to him. “Last year I paid the $4.99 x 12 months [or] $59.88,” Sullivan said in a Twitter DM. He tweeted that he noticed the charge on his bank account but had no idea what it was for. So, he canceled it.
Buying a new black ink cartridge direct from HP would cost $46.99. “When I canceled the service I figured I was turning off some kind of renewal service, but never did the thought even cross my mind that the ink that was physically in my printer would stop working,” Sullivan, a veteran IT worker who runs a WordPress business, said.
Sullivan didn’t print out the tweet about peeing on toilet seats, something he wanted to post in his home bathrooms as a message to his sons, and he’s decided to replace his HP printer.
“I'm not going to re-up the sub,” he said. “It bothers me at a pretty fundamental level of ownership that I'm not comfortable supporting. I'll probably buy the traditional cartridges for now and then explore other options as long term solutions. I have plenty of suggestions from Twitter users.”
HP did not immediately respond to our request for comment.