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.