Although Green Project Inc. is still a start-up, it is already playing with the big dogs – in the legal arena. The Los Angeles-based “eco-friendly” ink and cartridge toner recycler is engaged in a legal battle against Epson, one of the largest inkjet manufacturers in the world. Judging from the circumstances of the lawsuit, I’ll be pulling for the underdog. I’m also hoping the case will set a standard against corporations’ bullying of smaller businesses.
Green Project sells remanufactured ink cartridges, including Epson cartridges. (Customers send empty cartridges to Green Project, which refills and resells them, thereby preventing landfill waste.) Although Epson promotes its own recycling programs, it sometimes incinerates cartridges instead of recycling them. By offering customers a guaranteed recycling process, Green Project closes the cartridge manufacturing loop. (Incidentally, because of Green Project’s recycling efforts, the value of Epson cartridges is reportedly rising.)
So why did the inkjet giant file suit against Green Project (and several other companies) in April? Patent infringement, it claimed: Epson said Green Project violated Epson’s patent by creating “compatible” products, which would violate Epson’s intellectual property rights. A claim I could sympathize with, if Green Project did indeed make compatible products (it doesn’t) and if the well-established “First Sale Doctrine” didn’t exist. (Under this doctrine, once the patent owner sells the inkjet cartridge to the public, the patent owner’s rights end.) Worse, an Epson employee allegedly surreptitiously accessed Green Project’s business information by entering its premises and pretending to be a customer. Looks like Epson may not have much of a leg to stand on; this could be a simple case of intimidation.
Green Project recently filed a counter lawsuit – which seeks damages for trade secret misappropriation, trespassing, and declaratory judgment for non-infringement of Epson’s patents. Green Project has also expressed bafflement over Epson’s harsh environmental stance.
From a David-and-Goliath perspective, Green Project’s fight is admirable. But from a business and environment perspective, it is more than admirable; I believe it could be standard-setting. Green Project has been vocal in its environmental commitment, and it has also vocalized Epson’s lack thereof; I believe this vocalization distinguishes the case from others like it, many of which hinge simply on “legalese” (i.e. “you violated my rights more than I violated yours”). I hope this trait of the case will stand out to other sustainable businesses, and embolden them to remain firm in their commitments despite the possibility of corporate interference. I also hope, as the battle proceeds, that the case will serve as a warning to corporations thinking of suppressing small companies.
What do you think – are these reasonable hopes?