Taking on big ink

The earth is loaded with rare and precious materials, from tiny grains of radioactive isotopes to pouches of hand-picked saffron — pound for pound one of the most expensive spice and dyes on the planet, with prices varying from $1,000 to $10,000 for a kilogram.

Ambergris, a kind of oil made by Sperm Whales, possibly from the indigestible beaks of the giant squids they consume, is one of the most expensive liquids on the planet at more than $40 per fluid ounce.

Human blood also has its value, pegged at roughly 40 cents for a millilitre, or $12 for a fluid ounce. It’s free in Canada, but that’s what for-profit banks will charge you.

But the most expensive liquid anywhere by a long mile is printer ink. The price of ink can range up to $8,000 per gallon or $2,100 per litre, which is the equivalent of more than $2 for a millilitre. To fill a beer bottle with ink would cost you $682.

While the liquid is expensive, most of the high cost of ink replacement cartridges has to do with the fact that every cartridge is essentially a mini computer that stores and delivers the ink to the page. They are manufactured under antiseptic laboratory conditions, free of lint and dust that could plug up the microscopic holes, and great care has to be taken to ensure that none of the ink dries as its being put into the cartridge.

But $8,000 per gallon is still extortionate, especially when you consider the fact that every printer is quite obviously designed to exclude cartridges made by other companies, and each cartridge is designed to be difficult to refill. When someone sells you a printer they want you as a client for the long haul.

The situation prompted one Boston man to file suit against Hewlett Packard (HP) and Staples for “colluding to inflate the price of printer ink cartridges in violation of federal antitrust law”, according to the article at Ars Technica (

The suit alleges that HP paid Staples $100 million not to sell more inexpensive third party cartridges. The Boston man’s HP replacement cartridges are at the high end, with ink in the $8,000 per gallon range.

But while HP and Staples are the target of this particular suit, they’re hardly the only companies in the printing game to go after third party businesses. They’ve used patents and even the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to try to put third party companies out of business.

One tactic involves putting proprietary chips on cartridges that third party companies can’t duplicate, and are required for the printer to operate.

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