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HP removes update that forces customers to use on-brand ink cartridges

HP has  announced that it would walk back an update that made it impossible for the owners of certain HP printers to use third-party ink cartridges.

The tech giant known for its laptops and printers made a controversial decision to quietly trigger a digital lock in the September firmware update. After the update, any customer who attempted to print with a non-HP cartridge would deactivate the printer and receive a cartridge replacement warning. The printer would not resume working until an HP brand cartridge was inserted.

"We should have done a better job of communicating about the authentication procedure to customers, and we apologize," said HP in a blog entry posted today. The post went on to explain that they would offer another firmware update to affected customers to reverse the digital lock in two weeks.

Printer ink is famous for its high cost. HP's official ink cartridges are considerably more expensive than third-party options--on the Dutch printer ink website, an example of an off-brand option costs around $14 while the official ink comes in at twice the price at $27. It's even more on the official HP website.

Last week after the update went live, HP's support forum was flooded with questions and complaints about their printers suddenly not working. "Never again will I allow an HP product to auto-update (not that I will buy any anymore)," wrote a customer with the username Adler1. "How can I go back to a firmware that does not reject compatible cartridges? I want the same printer I had when I bought it."

"It's alarming from a consumer rights perspective," said Cory Doctorow, a special advisor for the Electronic Frontier Foundation who published a letter calling for HP to reverse the update on Monday. "If you buy something and it's yours, it's a bit weird for a manufacturer to reach into your home and take away stuff about it that you value in order to improve their bottom line."

In today's blog post, HP wrote that they removed the third-party ink cartridge option to "ensure the best consumer experience." They wrote, "When ink cartridges are cloned or counterfeited, the customer is exposed to quality and potential security risks, compromising the printing experience." The Washington Post has asked HP for comment, and will update this post if the company responds.

HP is hardly alone in attempting to restrict third-party access to their devices. Keurig tried a similar move last year, preventing its  latest generation of single-serving coffee makers from accepting anything other than Keurig-brand coffee pods. The company eventually reversed the update due to poor public response. Apple Music attempted to add digital locks to songs transferred to Apple Music from the cloud, but removed that feature this year. This process of adding proprietary software or firmware to protect intellectual property and potentially to box out competition is called called digital rights management (DRM) -- and it's part of a larger trend for manufacturers as our everyday objects become increasingly embedded with code.

Doctorow is also concerned that these DRM updates will contribute to making these devices more vulnerable to hacks. Security researchers, he said, need to be allowed to access devices in order to find and report defects and vulnerabilities without having to bypass a digital lock. "HP chases its naked self interest by maximizing profits from selling toner, and in the process of doing so, they make it a no-go zone for security researchers to check for long term vulnerabilities that can have a bad impact on people," he said.

"What if your light-bulb manufacturer could tell you what kind of socket to use? That's no good for anybody," he said.