The Worst Timeline: A Printer Company Is Putting DRM in Paper Now


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The Worst Timeline: A Printer Company Is Putting DRM in Paper Now

Are you well organized? Do you have a garage full of well-labeled bins or a pantry full of neatly labeled jars? Do you ship a lot of stuff and print labels? If so, you probably own and cherish your label maker. What’s not to like? 

Well, if you’re a Dymo label maker owner, there’s a new scam that might convince you to switch brands - if it doesn’t scare you off labels altogether, that is.

For a certain kind of corporate executive, the printer business is a source of endless temptation. After all, printers go through lots of “consumables.” That means that printer manufacturers don’t just get to sell you a printer, they also have a chance to sell you ink, forever.

There’s nothing wrong with this business. In theory. 

In practice, though, printer companies are greedy. They’re not content to be one of many companies offering ink in a competitive market. Rather, they want to be your only ink supplier, and boy oh boy do they want to charge you a lot of money for it - $12,000 per gallon!

No one would voluntarily pay $12,000/gal for ink that costs about $250/oz to manufacture, so the printer companies roll out an endlessly inventive bag of dirty tricks to force you to buy their $12,000/gal product, and keep you buying it, forever.

Now, printers have two consumables, ink and paper, but all the manufacturers’ effort is focused on the ink side. That’s because ink comes in cartridges, and printer companies can add cheap chips to their cartridges; the printer can send these chips to cryptographic challenges that require secret keys held only by the manufacturer. Other manufacturers don’t have the keys, so they can’t make a cartridge that the printer will recognize and accept. 

This strategy is lucrative but it has its limits: it falls to pieces the minute there’s a supply chain problem that means printer manufacturers can’t get chips anymore!

The pandemic was hard on a lot of companies, but it was a boom-time for the delivery industry and the firms that supply it.. The desktop label maker sector thrived during the lockdown, as hundreds of millions of people switched from shopping in person to buying things online - things that were delivered in boxes bearing barcode labels printed on a desktop label-printer.

Label printers are thermal printers, which means that they don’t use ink: instead, the “print-head” consists of tiny electrical elements that heat up special, thermoreactive paper that turns black when it is heated. 

Lacking ink, the label-printing market has been spared the kinds of shenanigans that plague the world of inkjets…until now.

Dymo is a household name: founded in 1958 with a breakthrough gadget that embossed capital letters onto rows of adhesive-backed tape, the company is now a division of Newell Brands, a giant, many-headed corporate hydra whose other companies include Rubbermaid, Mr. Coffee, Oster, Crock-Pot, Yankee Candle, Coleman, Elmer’s, Liquid Paper, Parker, Paper Mate, Sharpie, Waterman, X-Acto and many, many more.

For all that Dymo is part of this corporate empire, it has not heretofore been able to avail itself of the tricks that created $12,000/gal printer ink. That’s because the only consumable that Dymo owners need is labels, and labels are a standardized product, with many, many vendors producing them and selling them for use with many, many different brands of label maker. 

Some people might be willing to pay a little extra for Dymo’s own label-rolls, but if not, there are plenty of other options: not just cheaper labels, but labels designed for other uses, with different adhesives and finishes. 

Those people are going to be disappointed. Dymo’s latest generation of desktop label printers use RFID chips to authenticate the labels that Dymo’s customers put in their printers. This lets Dymo’s products distinguish between Dymo’s official labels and third-party consumables. That way, the printers can force their owners to conduct themselves in the ways that serve the interests of Dymo’s corporate owners - even when that is to the owners’ own detriment.

There is no (good) reason for this. In its sales literature, Dymo extols the virtues of chipping its label-rolls: auto-sensing of label types and auto-counting of remaining labels - and they boast that “[t]he direct thermal printer replaces the need to buy costly ink or toner.” 

But what they don’t say is that this printer forces you to buy Dymo’s own labels, which are substantially more expensive than many of its competitors’ labels (Dymo’s labels retail for about $10-$15  per roll; alternatives, about $2-$5 per roll). The reason they don’t say this is obvious: no one wants this

If a Dymo owner wants to buy Dymo labels, they will buy them. The only reason to add this anti-feature is to force Dymo owners who don’t want to buy Dymo labels to buy them anyway. All the advanced features that Dymo touts for its RFID-locked labels could be attained without the lock-in.  

For years, Dymo owners have assumed that they can use any labels with their printers. While some third party retailers  have added warnings about this label lock-in, the biggest retailers haven’t followed suit - instead, their customers are warning each other about the bait-and-switch. 

From the online reaction, it’s clear that Dymo’s customers are pissed. Some are congregating in technical discussions of how the measure might be defeated, but so far, no vendor has stepped in to offer a jailbreaking tool to let you modify your label maker to serve your interests, not Dymo’s shareholders.

There’s a good reason for that: U.S. Copyright law gives Dymo a powerful tool to intimidate commercial rivals who help us escape from label-jail. Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act exposes those rivals to $500,000 in fines and a five-year prison sentence for trafficking in tools that bypass an “access control” for a copyrighted work, like the firmware on a Dymo printer. While it’s not clear that a judge would rule in Dymo’s favor, very few commercial operators are willing to take the risk when the stakes are that high. That’s why we’re suing to overturn Section 1201.

The law moves slowly, and bad ideas can travel around an industry like a virus. So far, Dymo’s alone in putting DRM in paper. Its rivals, like Zebra and MFLabel, still make printers that let you decide whose labels you want to buy.

These printers aren’t cheap - $110-$120 - but they’re also not so expensive that they constitute the majority of the operating costs of owning one. Over the life of one of these printers, you can expect to spend far more on labels than on your printer.

That means that the smart move for a Dymo 550 and (Dymo 5XL) owner is to throw it away and buy a competing model from a competitor. Even after you eat the cost of your Dymo product, you’ll still save money in the long run.

Dymo is trying something unprecedented here. DRM in paper is such an abysmal, abusive idea that we should all recoil from it. Dymo’s betting that people who get suckered into buying its latest models will shrug and take it. But we don’t have to do that. Dymo has lots of competition, and it is vulnerable to bad publicity. This is one of those rare moments where a terrible plan is being hatched and we have the chance to stake it through the heart before it can reproduce.



* This article was originally published here

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