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.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    That One Guy (profile), Mar 20th, 2014 @ 8:00pm

    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.

     

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  2.  
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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Mar 20th, 2014 @ 8:21pm

    Re:

    Because Customs is holding it hostage not Fluke.
    Thinking outside of the black and white lines is not something a gov agency is capable of.

     

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  3.  
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    fairuse (profile), Mar 20th, 2014 @ 9:03pm

    Re:

    Good 'ol Customs. I can't blame the agency for enforcing the law. I will blame Capital Hill for making law and or allowing regulations that are so broad anything could be trapped like these DMM's.

    I bet this DMM of mine would be in a mega shredder now. I bought it in the 90's? - http://twitpic.com/dysunv

     

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  4.  
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    rasz_pl, Mar 21st, 2014 @ 12:53am

    How hard would it be to beat this trademark? After all Fluke trademarked something that was _already on the market for at least 5 years_ By teh time they filled for the trademark it already was a GENERIC PRODUCT.

    Its like google getting a trademark on ungoogleable tomorrow.

     

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  5.  
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    saulgoode (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 1:13am

    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.

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    teka, Mar 21st, 2014 @ 1:24am

    I would have rather have seen Fluke take over paying the storage fee and go to court/file with Customs to clarify their own trademark to remove the overlap and overly broad handling shown here.

     

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  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2014 @ 2:08am

    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.

     

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  8.  
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    Ninja (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 3:12am

    Mother Nature is thankful this was solved without further problems.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Howard (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 5:11am

    Re:

    I see now why there are no railings on skyscraper high platforms in Star Wars. They don't need "safety" excuses to push their diabolical plans, they have Teh Force :D

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    To busy to create an account, Mar 21st, 2014 @ 5:27am

    Possible Solution?

    Why not paint (plastic bonding paint) the DMM outer casing red (or green, blue, etc.)? That should satisfy customs, and any possible trademark issues. Should also be cheaper than paying to have them destroyed.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2014 @ 5:28am

    "If it looks like a Fluke itís a Fluke"

    I'm thinking they may not have fully thought that catchphrase through yet.

     

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  12.  
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    mmrtnt (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 6:15am

    Core Competency

    I think this just goes to show that if you're good at electronics, you probably suck at reading.

    Fluke knows this and just wants to make sure that electrical/electronic engineers need some way to make sure they're using genuine Fluke equipment other than, say, printing the name all over the thing.

     

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  13.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 6:38am

    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.

     

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  14.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 6:41am

    Re: Possible Solution?

    The DMMs cannot be brought into the US, and cannot be sent back to where they came from. To paint the units would require finding another country to ship them to and hiring someone there to do the modifications. I suspect it is prohibitively expensive.

     

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  15.  
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    JEDIDIAH, Mar 21st, 2014 @ 7:19am

    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.

     

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  16.  
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    Baldaur Regis (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 7:29am

    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.

     

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  17.  
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    PRMan, Mar 21st, 2014 @ 9:50am

    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.

     

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  18.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 9:57am

    Re: Re:

    Yeah, still not seeing it. I have to squint my eyes pretty hard and tilt my head just so in order to confuse this with a Fluke.

     

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  19.  
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    madasahatter (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 11:06am

    Re: Re:

    Correction, thinking is beyond the capabilities of a government agency

     

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  20.  
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    Phoenix84 (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 11:15am

    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.

     

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  21.  
    identicon
    Michael, Mar 21st, 2014 @ 1:00pm

    New Term

    To coin a new term, we can now call a company responding in a reasonable and human way to their trademark being applied improperly by a government agency a...

    fluke

    apt in so many ways...

     

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  22.  
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    Wallyb132 (profile), Mar 21st, 2014 @ 6:41pm

    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.

     

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  23.  
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    The Wanderer (profile), Mar 22nd, 2014 @ 12:21pm

    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.

     

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  24.  
    identicon
    Windsor, May 13th, 2014 @ 3:43pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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