Printer giant Lexmark has filed a patent infringement suit against 24 companies, accusing them of importing and selling replacement inkjet and toner cartridges that violate its intellectual property.

The names of the accused companies have not yet been made public, but Lexmark’s US International Trade Commission complaint is assumed to be connected to Chinese companies that manufacture Lexmark-compatible cartridges that undercut the Kentucky company's on price.

Lexmark wants damages, limitations placed on the unnamed importers, and legal fees.

The danger of Lexmark’s strategy is that it draws attention to the controversial business model used by all print vendors to varying degrees, namely of offering low-cost printers with high-priced consumables.

In 2003, Lexmark infamously lost a suit that had invoked the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) to block a company it accused of cloning the control chip embedded in toner cartridges to ‘authenticate’ consumables.

The issue is how far rival makers of toner and ink cartridges should be allowed to go in undercutting the high prices charged by major printer manufacturers.

Rival HP has also been quick to call in the lawyers, such as the German case against a Korean company in 2006. The new legal wrangle is limited to the US.

A number of surveys have uncovered the huge waste associated with printer consumables at any price. One study form 2007 reckoned that inkjets can report ink cartridges to be empty when significant amounts of ink are still present.