Fluke Gives Sparkfun A Bunch Of Multimeters In Response To Trademark Mess

from the good-response-to-a-bad-situation dept

Well, that was fast. We just had our post about the unfortunate trademark situation that Sparkfun found itself in, with 2,000 multimeters held by US Customs at the border because they happened to have a yellow outside, and multimeter king Fluke happened to trademark an aspect of that look. Fluke, of course, had no direct hand in stopping this particular shipment, but had (a) gotten that trademark and (b) years ago gone to the ITC to get an injunction against other multimeter makers.

That said, it appears that Fluke’s management recognizes how this kind of situation can spiral out of control, and after spending about a day understanding the details, made a public offer to Sparkfun: giving the company a pile of Fluke multimeters and letting Sparkfun do what they want with them (sell them, donate them, burn them in a pyre, whatever). As Fluke notes, the value of the equipment it’s giving Sparkfun exceeds the lost shipment:

Earlier today we contacted SparkFun and offered to provide a shipment of genuine Fluke equipment, free of charge for them to sell on their site or donate. The value of the equipment exceeds the value of the Customs-held shipment. SparkFun can resell the Fluke gear, recouping the cost of their impounded shipment, or donate it into the Maker community.

While we will continue to enforce our trademark, we are taking this one-time action because we believe in the work of SparkFun supporting the Maker and education communities. This is important to us. We have been supporters of the Maker community for years through the donation of over half a million dollars worth of tools and employee time to organizations like First Robotics.

Sparkfun accepted and has announced it will be donating the multimeters to educational institutions and schools. Given the situation and potential PR headache for Fluke, this was probably the best solution.

It’s not perfect however. There is still a shipment of 2,000 perfectly good hobbyist-level multimeters that are about to be destroyed for no good reason thanks to trademark law (what was that people were saying about trademarks being about “protecting” property rights? Seems like the opposite here…). Also, Fluke insists that it’s going to continue to be aggressive about its trademarks in a somewhat misleading way:

Like any organization that designs and manufactures electronics, we actively work to stop lookalike products from making it to the marketplace. We do this to protect our company and the jobs of our employees. We also do so because it is a matter of safety for our customers. Our tools are used in high-energy industrial environments, where precision and safety is an absolute necessity.

I mention this because we firmly believe that we must be – and will continue to be – vigilant in protecting Fluke and our customers. One step in doing that was registering a trademark protecting the look and feel of our devices so our customers know that if it looks like a Fluke it’s a Fluke.

While it is true that trademark law, when used properly, should be about consumer protection, it seems to be going a bit far to suggest that a broad trademark on multimeters with a yellow and gray outer coating should give one company exclusivity over such a look. There is no indication that people were somehow confusing hobbyist-level multimeters like Sparkfun’s with Fluke’s high-end versions, nor any indication that anyone was using the cheap multimeters in a manner that put people at risk.

All in all, it’s good to see Fluke quickly respond and try to make the best of the situation, but the underlying setup is still problematic.

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Companies: fluke, sparkfun

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Comments on “Fluke Gives Sparkfun A Bunch Of Multimeters In Response To Trademark Mess”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Might be a stupid question but, what’s stopping them from just giving away the currently impounded shipment?

Paying to destroy something I’m sure there would be no problem disposing of if they simply said ‘Grab as many as you want, any that remain will be destroyed’ seems like a much better use for a bunch of electronics like that, not to mention a whole lot less wasteful.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yes, the Fluke trademark is pretty recent, especially compared to how long the trademarked design has been on the market. It might be possible to challenge it.

But I 100% understand why SparkFun would not want to go that route — a combination of expensive (they’d never recoup the legal costs) and that Fluke is a respected company that is not really being a bad guy here.


Re: Re: Entirely forseeable.

Yes, they are really being a bad guy here. They are abusing the system and it was their actions that ultimately created this situation. This is all exactly what Fluke intended to happen. Now that has blown up into a potential PR mess, they are trying to pretend they aren’t the bad guys.

They were perfectly happy to abuse the system and are still by their own statements pretty much satisfied with the outcome.

saulgoode (profile) says:

We also do so because it is a matter of safety for our customers. Our tools are used in high-energy industrial environments, where precision and safety is an absolute necessity.

It is not the purpose of trademark law to protect people from misusing items they’ve purchased; it’s purpose is to protect them from being misled in their decision to make the purchase.

That an electrician, engineer, or hobbyist might grab the wrong DMM out of the toolbox because of similar schemes is not an issue to be addressed with trademark law. If there is a concern that the CAT II, III, and IV markings on the device are not sufficient then a more conspicuous standard (such as color coding) should be mandated.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think the point wasn’t to avoid confusion when grabbing a tool out of the toolbox, but to avoid confusion in identifying which tool is being purchased.

I.e., if competing multimeters are allowed to look like a Fluke, someone who doesn’t investigate closely enough might think they are Flukes, or at least are of similar quality; thinking that, the someone might buy one, and use it in a way which would be safe with a Fluke but is not with the product which was actually bought.

I don’t disagree that the trademark itself does look overly broad, but as applied, the stated purpose of this seems quite consonant with the actual purpose of trademark law.

Anonymous Coward says:

I guess Fluke believes someone who’s educated enough to work around high voltage electricity, isn’t smart enough to know how to spell “Fluke”, or how to read.

It’s always about “safety”, when a government or corporation is pushing their diabolical agendas. It’s a repeating pattern that’s used over and over again.

Baldaur Regis (profile) says:

There is no indication that people were somehow confusing hobbyist-level multimeters like Sparkfun’s with Fluke’s high-end versions, nor any indication that anyone was using the cheap multimeters in a manner that put people at risk.

This seems to be the crux of the problem in trademark enforcement – a perception of infringement by the application (or the misapplication) of the ‘moron in a hurry‘ test.

That being said, I applaud Fluke’s solution to this potential PR nightmare.

PRMan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I actually think a moron in a hurry could physically harm himself with this multimeter, so it fails the test. As much as I hate broad trademarks, it’s pretty clear here that they were trying to copy pretty much exactly to create confusion.

All in all, I salute Fluke for doing a good thing but sticking to their guns.

Phoenix84 (profile) says:

I have an old Radio Shack DMM (probably 10 years old or more now). It’s mostly yellow, with a grey front. Except for that, I rarely see any yellow multimeters anymore that aren’t Fluke. Got to Harbor Freight, Fry’s or RS now, and all you see are grey, black, and red ones. No yellow. Like the original guy from Sparkfun, I also associate yellow with multimeters in general (and red now), but not Fluke specifically.

I’ve used Fluke before, and they’re nice, but I won’t buy one for hobbyist work.

Wallyb132 (profile) says:

I'm actually surprised

Its really a surprise to see a big company, especially one who defends it trademark rigorously, step up to the plate like this and try to make some good out of a bad situation. I absolutely respect Fluke for this.

I might even consider using their products, in the past, they’ve never been on my radar, most because of price, but now, I may reconsider that mindset.

Windsor says:

These meters could have been designed in any shape or color, but were clearly made to emulate the Fluke design. As much as I love Sparkfun, they should have thought twice before laying down the cash to buy a product that is a blatant copy, in a country where businesses are allowed (and justified in this case) to defend their IP.

In my opinion, Fluke are going beyond their obligation to donate their meters to Sparkfun, but it’s an honorable move considering the great service that Sparkfun provides to hobbyists. I hope the meters are eventually donated to schools.

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