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 user 2005-04-18 at 9:50:00 am Views: 78
  • #8952

    Green light

    A recent
    Tokyo court case has lit the ‘go’ sign for remanufactured cartridge resellers in
    Japan. But the battle against the OEMs has only just begun

    For the
    last few decades, Japan has clung to all that is advanced and modern – embracing
    commerce, technology and ‘state of the art’ with gusto. But it seems one
    international trend has passed the nation by. While anti-monopoly battles have
    been fought out in the West – with courts largely bowing to the rights of the
    consumer – manufacturing giants in Japan have been left to enjoy relative
    intellectual property domination.

    The market for remanufactured
    cartridges provides a clear example. The Japanese market is a small one over
    which OEM giants such as Canon and Epson reside. It is also one in which legal
    uncertainty – and fear of going against these giants – has left many dealers and
    distributors unwilling to import recycled
    inkjet cartridges into the country.

    recent events suggest revolutionary rocks have started rumbling. In December
    2003, Asian cartridge supplier Union Technology International (UTec) shipped
    some recycled
    inkjet cartridges (compatible
    for Canon printers) to a Japanese customer, Recycle Assist. This provoked Canon
    to lodge a patent infringement claim against the Japanese distributor. On 8
    December 2004, the charge was rejected by Tokyo District Court, which clarified
    that recycling cartridges belongs in the category of ‘repair’, and in no way
    invades the OEM’s intellectual property rights.

    Although Canon is
    currently appealing against the decision, industry insiders claim the impact of
    the case -should it not be reversed – will be immense. “The decision is a
    milestone for cartridge recyclers in Japan and is expected to bring about
    revolutionary changes,” says UTec’s director Iris Ngo.

    “It opens the
    door for overseas recyclers (notably those in low cost countries) to export
    inkjet cartridges to Japan. We also
    expect to see more
    inkjet cartridges recycled
    in other countries going into Japan. OEMs such as Canon and Epson are right to
    be concerned by the expected increase in competition.”

    Colin O’Brien,
    CEO of imaging products manufacturer GCC International, airs a similar view.
    “Now that it is seen to be legal, the market is open to refillers of all quality
    and price levels. Japan is a high priced market and will attract many entrants
    eager to get a part of it.”

    Indeed, Japan is one of the few markets
    worldwide in which OEM
    inkjet cartridges still
    take up to 80-90 per cent of the supplies market. The potential is huge.

    The benefits to consumers, too, are evident: greater choice; lower
    prices (recycled printing supplies usually sell at 20-30 per cent discount to
    original products); environmental satisfaction; and, as many believe, higher
    quality suppliers in the market.

    But just because distributors can sell
    remanufactured cartridges in Japan, does not automatically mean they will gain
    market share. Japanese customers are known to demand high quality products and
    services, so they may continue to look to brands they are familiar with.

    “It remains to be seen if remanufacturers of inkjets can meet the high quality levels that
    Japanese consumers demand, and whether they can develop a brand, find
    distribution and make a profitable business case,” says O’Brien. “After all,
    patents are there to encourage innovation and forbid others trying to get a
    ‘free ride’ off the OEMs’ products.

    “Furthermore, Asia has a high
    respect for brands and a lesser regard for environmental issues which pushes
    them to the OEM,” he adds. “And the Japanese market differs from the rest of the
    Asian markets in that brand and quality tend to remain paramount over price,
    compared to, say, China where price is everything and quality a very poor

    There are additional hurdles for distributors. OEMs can
    restrain competition from recycled products by using ‘killer chips’. According
    to Vincent van Dijk, secretary general of the European Toner and
    Inkjet Remanufacturers Association (ETIRA), these
    chips have useful functions such as measuring
    ink levels, but increasingly their sole purpose is
    to prevent re-use of the cartridge after the first use, therefore reducing the
    availability of empties in the market.

    In addition, many tech giants –
    including Canon – have introduced their own collection and recycling schemes in

    But, according to O’Brien, perhaps a larger threat to the future
    of the Japanese imaging products industry is not so much patents but
    counterfeiting, which is becoming increasingly rampant.

    On the plus
    side, the market scope for remanufactured cartridges worldwide looks extremely
    rosy at the moment. The paperless office still seems a far cry from becoming a
    reality, the digitalisation of imaging has increased printing globally, and the
    colour laser is fast on the inroad. With any luck, there will be plenty of room
    in the Japanese market for OEMs and remanufacturers alike.