The Canon Printer DRM Jam

Recently, printer manufacturer Canon posted an article on their German tech support site that caught the eye of many in the tech industry. In it, they explain to users how to bypass their protection schemes and continue to print even if the cartridge placed in the printer isn’t an official one.

The issue impacts a series of imageRUNNER printers and has been caused by the global chip shortage. Basically, Canon cannot acquire enough of the chips for their printer cartridges. This means that, when users put official Canon cartridges in their printer, the printer won’t recognize them and this will break some features and cause the printer to give warnings.

However, as Canon points out, bypassing those warnings is relatively simple. In most cases, it’s as easy as clicking a prompt on the printer’s screen or restarting the printer itself. That, in turn, is exactly what their German instructions are asking users to do while the shortage is impacting them.

While it’s an overall minor deal from a tech support standpoint, this post drew a great deal of attention from tech media simply because of how unpopular this approach to selling printers and cartridges has proven.

The system, among other things, is used to lock out unlicensed manufacturers and this lack of competition is one of the reasons why printer ink is so famously expensive. This has resulted in something of a feeling of schadenfreude among the tech community who, for years, have been frustrated with the status quo when it comes to printers and ink.

However, the story is slightly more complicated than many people want to believe. While Canon and other printer manufacturers certainly aren’t perfect companies, there’s nuance here that is well worth exploring.

Copyright and Printer DRM

For many, printer cartridge DRM represents one of the worst abuses of copyright, in particular the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Under the DMCA, it is against the law to circumvention digital rights management tools that protect copyrighted material. For example, the DRM tools that protect videos or prevent streaming videos from being downloaded.

However, it’s dubious whether that law actually applies to printer cartridges. In 2002, printer company Lexmark lost a major decision at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled, if the software’s only job is to provide a lock out, it isn’t covered by the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions.

As such, any lock out code Canon is using would need to be preventing or restricting access to some other copyright-protected work, not just trying to prevent unofficial cartridges.

That said, the technical challenges of this kind of lock out are still very real and do a great deal to restrict Canon’s competitors from launching their own cartridges. Without a doubt, Canon does love this exclusivity, especially since printer manufacturers have long used the printers as a loss-leader to sell more cartridges.

This is why printer ink can often be more expensive than the printer it goes into.

However, there are other features and benefits of the current system, even for customers. For one, it allows Canon to ensure that low-quality print cartridges don’t damage the printer. For another, it allows the cartridge to report when it is low on ink, enabling the printer to warn users before it stops printing.

While, for Canon, these benefits likely pale in comparison to the exclusivity the current system grants them, they are real. This issue is seen with these new Canon cartridges as they no longer report when they are low on ink or provide any feedback to the printer.

Though Canon assures this does not reduce print quality, it still degrades the experience, at least some. So, while the schadenfreude is perfectly understandable, customers are getting an inferior product, even if only slightly.

Bottom Line

In the end, this is a tempest in a teapot. When we’re talking about “breaking Canon’s DRM” we are only talking about hitting ok on some prompts or restarting a printer. Compare that to the extensive steps needed to bypass such systems on a PlayStation 5, and it hardly seems like breaking DRM at all.

In truth, it probably isn’t. Not only are Canon’s cartridges likely not covered by copyright, it’s clear that they baked these bypass tools into their process. They intended customers to use them, even if it was unclear what they were or how they worked.

Clearly this was Canon’s intentions for some time, even if it is only as a backup. While it’s easy to see why many are celebrating printer companies being hoisted by their DRM petard, that’s not really what’s happening here.

There’s clearly a need for reinvention in the printer space, but this isn’t going to bring it about. It’s not a printer company giving up on DRM, just a printer company using a backup plan after an unprecedented chip shortage means that they can’t provide a complete product at this time.

Change is definitely needed, but this isn’t how it will happen.

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