Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Good Fluke

There was a story a week or so ago about a small business named SparkFun in Boulder, CO that sells electronics and tools and such to the hobbyist market (they call it the maker crowd, but I find that term sort of silly).  They look for and carry less expensive alternatives to professional equipment.  Wait, why don't I just link to the article instead?

A common tool used in the hobbyist electronics crowd is the digital multimeter.  You've likely seen one and you may even used one.  These are the devices that measure volts, amps, and ohms.  Sometimes other things.  The gold standard among these meters is generally Fluke, though opinions on gear are as common as models of multimeters out there.

SparkFun was importing a couple thousand multimeters from China.  It looks like they were labeled under SparkFun's house brand name.  These are nice looking meters.  In fact, they look very similar to the Fluke style meters.

And that's where the problem starts.

SparkFun received a letter from US Customs and Border Protection in Denver telling them that their shipment of meters from China would not be allowed in the United States due to trademark infringement.  The letter pointed them to the trademark in question and told them their options:  return the meters to China or pay to have them destroyed in the United States.  Both options cost a lot of money.

So trademark infringement?  On a multimeter?  Turns out that Fluke applied for a trademark covering it's distinctive case design in 2000 and was awarded the trademark in 2003.  These meters from China were styled in the same manner as a Fluke device which is what triggered the trademark infringement concern.  As a trademark owner (any trademark owner), you must defend your mark or risk losing it.  This has happened many times in the past and lots of companies regret not being more aggressive in defending their trademarks, however silly they may be.

Fluke is an American company and part of what our import controls are for is protecting the interests of American businesses.  In this case, a very large business (Fluke) unfortunately disrupted a very small business' livelihood.  And both businesses are American.  Who do you cater to?  We want both to succeed, right?  In SparkFun's case, the cost of either option would likely have put them in significant debt and made it hard to continue doing business.

We talked about this story at lunch one day and I said that Fluke should step up and either offer to cover the destruction fee or do some sort of other goodwill thing for SparkFun.  You acknowledge a growing market of technically minded people who just can't really afford Fluke gear right now and you hopefully keep everyone liking Fluke, whether or not they can afford the equipment.

A couple days later, Fluke did just that!  Wow, a business trying to do good to help a smaller business.  While they did not cover the cost of destruction, they did one better and offered SparkFun a free shipment of genuine Fluke meters to do whatever they wanted with.

This is amazing to me.  Fluke really seemed to understand the bind they put SparkFun in.

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