Worst Timeline: Printing Company Now Puts DRM on Paper

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Update: This article briefly appeared with a typo stating the manufacturing cost of printer ink at $250/oz; the correct figure is $250/gal. We regret the error and thank the eagle-eyed readers who spotted and reported it on Twitter. Your service is appreciated and we salute you.

Are you well organized? Do you have a garage full of neatly labeled trash cans or a pantry full of neatly labeled jars? Do you ship a lot and print labels? If so, you probably own and treasure 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 that doesn’t scare you completely of labels, of course.

For a certain type of business manager, the profession of printer is a source of endless temptation. After all, printers use many “consumables”. This means that printer manufacturers don’t just sell you a printer, they can also sell you ink, forever.

There is nothing wrong with this company. In theory.

In practice, however, printers are greedy. They are not content to be just one of many companies offering ink in a competitive market. On the contrary, they want to be your alone ink supplier, and Oh dear do they want to charge you a lot of money – up to $12,000 per gallon!

Nobody would voluntarily pay $12,000/gal for ink that costs around $170/gal to make, so printers are rolling out an endlessly inventive bag of dirty tricks to force you to buy their product at $12,000/gal, and keep buying it, forever.

Now printers have of them consumables, ink and paper, but all the effort of the manufacturers is concentrated on the ink side. This is because the ink comes in cartridges and printers 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’s falling apart as soon as there is a supply chain problem that means printer manufacturers can no longer get chips!

The pandemic has been difficult for many businesses, but it has been a boom time for the delivery industry and the companies that supply them. The desktop labeling industry flourished during the lockdown, as hundreds of millions of people switched from shopping in person to buying things online – things that were delivered in boxes with code labels on them – bars printed on a desktop label printer.

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

Running out of ink, the label printing market has been spared the kinds of shenanigans that plague the inkjet world…until now.

Dymo is a household name: Founded in 1958 with a revolutionary gadget that embossed capital letters on rows of tape, the company is now a division of Newell Brands, a giant multi-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 so far been unable to avail itself of the tricks that have created $12,000/gal printer ink. Indeed, the only consumable Dymo owners need are labels, and labels are a standardized product, with many, many suppliers producing and selling them for use with many, many different brands of label makers.

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

These people are going to be disappointed. Dymo’s latest generation of desktop label printers use RFID chips to authenticate the labels that Dymo customers insert into their printers. This allows Dymo products to distinguish between official Dymo labels and third party consumables. This way, printers can force their owners to behave in a way that serves the interests of Dymo business owners – even when it comes at the expense of the owners.

There is no (good) reason for this. In his commercial documentationDymo touts its label roll shredding: automatic detection of label types and automatic counting of remaining labels – and they boast that “[t]The direct thermal printer eliminates the need to purchase expensive ink or toner.

But what they do not do say is that this printer requires you to buy Dymo’s own labels, which are significantly more expensive than most competitors’ labels (Dymo’s labels sell for around $10-15 per roll; alternatives, around $2-5 per roll). The reason they don’t say this is obvious: nobody wants that.

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 do not do want to buy Dymo labels to buy them anyway. All the advanced features that Dymo touts for its RFID lock tags could be achieved without confinement.

For years Dymo owners assumed they could use any label with their printers. Although some third-party retailers have warnings added about this label lock, the bigger retailers haven’t followed suit – instead, their customers warn themselves about bait and switch.

From online reactionit is clear that Dymo customers are irritated. Some are come together in technical discussions about how the measure might be defeatedbut so far no vendor has stepped in to offer a jailbreaking tool that lets you modify your label maker to serve your interests, not Dymo’s shareholders.

There’s a good reason for that: US copyright law gives Dymo a powerful tool to intimidate commercial rivals who help us escape label prison. Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act exposes these rivals to $500,000 in fines and a five-year prison sentence for trafficking tools that circumvent “access control” for a copyrighted work, such as firmware for a computer. Dymo printer. While it’s unclear whether a judge would rule in favor of Dymo, very few commercial operators are willing to take the risk when the stakes are so high. that’s why we are suing to rescind item 1201.

The law moves slowly and bad ideas can spread through an industry like a virus. So far, Dymo is the only one putting DRM on paper. Its competitors, like Zebra and MFLabel, still make printers that let you decide which labels you want to buy.

These printers aren’t cheap – $110 to $120 – but they aren’t so expensive that they make up the majority of the running costs of owning one. Over the lifetime of any of these printers, you can expect to spend far more on the labels than on your printer.

This means the smart decision for a Dymo 550 and (Dymo 5XL) owner is to throw it and buy a competing model from a competitor. Even after consuming the cost of your Dymo product, you will still save money in the long run.

Dymo is trying something new here. Paper DRM is such a disastrous and abusive idea that we should all recoil from it. Dymo is betting that people who are tempted to buy its latest models will shrug their shoulders and take it. But we don’t have to. Dymo has a lot of competition and is vulnerable to bad publicity. It’s one of those rare times when a terrible plan is hatching and we get the chance to stake it in our hearts before it can happen again.

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