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$30K Worth of Multimeters Must Be Destroyed Because They're Yellow 653

Posted by Soulskill
from the school-buses-on-high-alert dept.
An anonymous reader points out a post at the blog of Sparkfun, a hobbyist electronics retailer. They recently received a letter from U.S. Customs saying a shipment of 2,000 multimeters was being barred from entry into the country. The reason? Trademark law. A company named Fluke holds a trademark on multimeters that have a 'contrasting yellow border.' Sparkfun's multimeters are a yellowish orange, but it was enough for Customs to stop the shipment. Returning the shipment is not an option because of import taxes in China, so the multimeters must now be destroyed. At $15 per item, it'll cost Sparkfun $30,000, plus the $150/hr fee for destroying them. Sparkfun had no idea about the trademark, and doesn't mind changing the color, but they say restrictions like these are a flaw in the trademark system. "Small business does not have the resources to stay abreast of all trademarks for all the products they don't carry. If you’re going to put the onus on the little guy to avoid infringing IP then you shouldn't need an army of consultants or attorneys to find this information."
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$30K Worth of Multimeters Must Be Destroyed Because They're Yellow

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  • by ZorinLynx (31751) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:06PM (#46525771) Homepage

    Did Fluke actually request this? Or did Customs do this of their own volition?

    If it's the latter, Fluke should step up and allow them to make a one time exception for this shipment. It would generate considerably goodwill for the company and show that they're not bullies keeping the little guy down.

    If they DID request this, then fuck them all with a chainsaw, seriously.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:06PM (#46525773)

    This is a typical example of the consequences of 'intellectual property' extremism that harms society for no good reason.

  • by NotDrWho (3543773) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:07PM (#46525791)

    I dream of starting a company that can innovate with new products. But I suspect the reality would be a nightmare of lawyers and hassles instead.

  • To be fair... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kenja (541830) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:08PM (#46525799)
    Those look a LOT like a Fluke multimeter, in more ways then just the color. I find it hard to believe that isn't intentional.
  • by Krojack (575051) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:09PM (#46525809)

    Ask Apple how you can trademark rounded corners. I'm sure they have lots of insight on this.

  • Infringement (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SandwhichMaster (1044184) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:10PM (#46525829) Homepage

    I've trademarked black writing on a white background. Please destroy any materials that infringe on my IP

  • another idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by somepunk (720296) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:10PM (#46525835) Homepage

    Ok, you can't send em back, and the gov't says they aren't legal here. Why not a third destination?

  • by Pope Raymond Lama (57277) <gwidion@@@mpc...com...br> on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:15PM (#46525899) Homepage

    If it's the latter, Fluke should step up and allow them to make a one time exception for this shipment. It would generate considerably goodwill for the company and show that they're not bullies keeping the little guy down.

    You are new to this "capitalism" thing, aren't you?

  • by SirDrinksAlot (226001) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:16PM (#46525917) Journal

    Sorry, I like SparkFun and all but this does look a lot like Fluke industrial design. Ok so the colour isn't EXACTLY the same shade of yellow, but if you removed the branding from it and asked somebody what brand it looks like they'll say Fluke assuming they've poked around the market any or are in the industry. Granted it would be cool of Fluke saying something like "OK This ONE time" since SparkFun is all about hobbyists who might eventually become Fluke customers. SparkFun should have thought of this before ordering a container full of them, pleading ignorance that your multimeter is DAMN CLOSE to somebody else's product and not expect trouble is dubious at best. It looks a lot like a Fluke 17b with out the buttons.

  • by asmkm22 (1902712) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:16PM (#46525921)

    It seems unlikely that Fluke would have even known about the shipment, much less been in a position to request it. Also, I seriously doubt the company would benefit from much "goodwill" over the ordeal. Their target market is kind of niche, and not exactly prone to making buying decisions based on Facebook polls or whatever. Plus, letting a possibly-inferior product that can be mistaken for their own loose in the wild would mean much more in potential damages to their rep than any "goodwill" gained from the exemption.

    Sparkfun does bring up a good point, however. They didn't really do anything "wrong" yet still get hit with a financial loss big enough to sink a lot of businesses. There currently is no system in place for them to have been able to vet the order beforehand for possible trademark violations, aside from retaining lawyers to check out every product they want to order. That may very well be SOP for large companies with deep pockets and lawyers on staff, but it's entirely unlikely that any small business could afford it, much less realize it's something they need to do.

    At the end of the day, it's just another roadblock on a road that's already full of them, for anyone looking to start or expand their business.

  • Re:To be fair... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hirschma (187820) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:16PM (#46525923)

    Sparkfun must have known that those meters look almost exactly like a Fluke (because of the yellow, and a bunch of other reasons).

    Sorry, but it is not an example of IP run amok. This is Sparkfun being disingenuous.

  • Re:Thugs (Score:2, Insightful)

    by wcrowe (94389) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:17PM (#46525935)

    Sadly, this is the kind of thing you usually only see in countries where government officials are corrupt. It is a warning sign of the direction the U.S. government is headed.

  • by jedidiah (1196) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:17PM (#46525941) Homepage

    > You dont think coca-cola would be upset if a product came out called coka-cola in a red and white can?

    Except this wasn't anything like that.

    Coke Inc. Certainly shouldn't be able to "own" the colors red and white.

    Although Coke does have a distinctive enough bottle design to qualify for a genuine trademark. Ironically you overlooked it in your rush to fellate your corporate masters.

  • Re:To be fair... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rudisaurus (675580) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:17PM (#46525951)
    Totally agree. What's more, you can't be in the multimeter business and NOT be aware of Fluke; they've been prominent players and frontrunners in that business for literally decades. Sparkfun had to be aware of Fluke's product line, but they went ahead and chose a yellowish-orange border colour anyway. "Army of consultants or attorneys" indeed! Serves 'em right.
  • Re:To be fair... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Krojack (575051) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:17PM (#46525953)

    The only Fluke I see it looking sorta similar to is this one [circuitspecialists.com]. SparkFun offered to change the color. Also it's a multimeter, how much different can it look so it doesn't look like others. That's kinda like Ford suing every auto manufacturer for making cars with 4 wheels.

  • Re:To be fair... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ThatAblaze (1723456) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:18PM (#46525965)

    Yes, it sounds like typical corporate strategy to me "lets just go ahead and break the rules, we'll pay if we get caught, and if not profit!"

  • Baloney (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dtmos (447842) * on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:23PM (#46526007)

    Any "hobbyist electronics retailer" attempting to sell a multimeter in the US knows -- or should know -- what a Fluke multimeter looks like, and any businessman or businesswoman knows -- or should know -- that there will be problems trying to sell a product that looks like the product with a dominant share of the market.

    Also, you don't need "an army of consultants or attorneys to find this information." Trademarks are freely available from the USPTO web site, in searchable form. Anybody can look them up.

    Finally, most business contracts between a manufacturer and a distributor will have an indemnification clause, in which the manufacturer warrants that the product has no intellectual property issues and, should a claim be made against the distributor, the costs associated with such claims will be borne by the manufacturer. If Sparkfun's contract for the Fluke knock-offs didn't have such a clause, I'm sure their standard contract will in the future.

  • Re:To be fair... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fermion (181285) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:23PM (#46526025) Homepage Journal
    Sparkfun had no idea about the trademark, and doesn't mind changing the color, but they say restrictions like these are a flaw in the trademark system.

    I wonder what kind of electronics person does not know fluke and the trademark, at least anyone who has a passing relationship to the business.

    This is where trademark laws works, and the way it is supposed to work. Fluke has spent 50 years developing good tools for people who need of want good tools. Some upstart like Sparkfun decides to superficially mimic this work, and then claims 'we did not know'.

    Here is the thing with small business. You are allowed and encouraged to take risks, you are allowed to try to work under the radar, but sometimes you make a mistake and you have to pay. There are rules, and if you are going to play the game, it is important to know the rules. They can be complex, even arbitrary, which is why kids do not do the real work.

  • by n1ywb (555767) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:24PM (#46526045) Homepage Journal
    I am holding in my hand at this very moment a grey faced yellow bodies multimeter which was made in china and sold at walmart. I guess laws only apply to the little guys.
  • Re:To be fair... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Sponge Bath (413667) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:30PM (#46526115)

    I would have to agree with you on that. The summary refers to the Sparkfun multi-meter as "yellowins-orange" but in the picture it looks strikingly like the yellow that fluke uses. The grey face is pretty darn close to the grey Fluke uses too. I'd like to see a side by side comparison photo.

    The curves and proportions are slavishly copied as well. This was meant to confuse no doubt.

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:32PM (#46526143)

    "i don't know, but if you look at the pictures of both the sparkfun literally copied the color scheme

    "i don't know if they designed it or just sell some chinese copy, but they could at least have changed the colors

    Let's face it: a "trademark" on a common electronic gadget being yellow is overly-broad and never should have been issued. It probably happened back in the day when multimeters in the U.S. were made by only a few companies.

    Maybe I should go out and trademark traffic signs that are red and white. Or black and white. Think what a business I could have!

  • Re:Thugs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by deadweight (681827) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:39PM (#46526207)
    Bullcrap. I have a Fluke meter. It wasn't cheap. This thing looks EXACTLY like it.
  • by RDW (41497) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:39PM (#46526213)

    So are they going after Amazon?: http://www.amazon.com/Supco-DM... [amazon.com]

  • by Curtman (556920) * on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:40PM (#46526239)
    Does this mean I should destroy my yellow UEI multimeter? Or can I just dye it?
  • by Agent0013 (828350) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:46PM (#46526309) Journal
    It's also the same color as a forklift, and road construction signs. Isn't yellow meant to be a color designating a warning or safety issue? I do see the similarity to Fluke meters with the grey face plate and yellow sides, but on their site they say the shade is more of a macaroni and cheese color. Can fluke own every shade of yellow? Other people on the Sparkfun site also mentioned how many non-Fluke meters are sold at Home Depot and Lowes that have the same yellow coloring on them. In fact I have just checked on Home Depot and see several brands of multimeters that have the grey face plate with yellow boarders. That would seem to make it a more generic coloration used for meters to make them easily recognized. Perhaps Fluke should lose their ownership of the color as it has become the normal color of most meters out there.
  • by macdude22 (846648) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:48PM (#46526323)
    I should also get on destroying my Yellow Radioshack multimeter.
  • by Agent0013 (828350) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @02:48PM (#46526325) Journal
    Knowing that half of all the digital multimeters sold at Home Depot are grey face plate with yellow boarders seems to indicate that there is no problem with that color scheme. And none of them are Fluke either.
  • by Agent0013 (828350) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @03:08PM (#46526521) Journal
    But all the other meter makes have been using the same design for decades also. So how does one company get to claim it when it's an industry standard. Just check around and see how many other meters have the same colors. I checked Home Depot's and Lowes sites and found many.
  • by spire3661 (1038968) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @03:09PM (#46526527) Journal
    Bullshit. It can be easily argued that in the modern era, ignorance of the law MUST be allowed as a valid defense. There are too many laws for any one person to know, ergo ignorance of the law is a viable defense.
  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @03:22PM (#46526675)

    If you do an image search for multimeters there aren't many colors left which don't copy one already in existence.

    How many of those other colors are protected by a registered trademark?

    If you look at this multimeter, and a Fluke multimeter, side-by-side, it is fairly obvious that it was intentionally designed to look as close as possible to a Fluke. The color, the taper of the case, etc. This was hardly innocent, accidental infringement.

  • by cbeaudry (706335) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @03:26PM (#46526715)

    Do a search for "Yellow Multimeter" on Google, then go to Google images and scroll down.

    There is probable a dozen different brands of multimeters with a yellow contour and grey main face plate. Its probably the most popular color scheme for multimeters.

    IMO, that patent should be quashed.

    https://www.google.ca/search?q... [google.ca]

  • by hawguy (1600213) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @03:40PM (#46526859)

    To be fair, the purpose of Trademarks is different from other IP; a large part of allowing trademarks it is to protect the consumer.

    Let's say that people buy these look-alikes expecting that they came from Fluke, because Fluke make good products. Instead, they start exploding and burning people's hands off.

    My TV has a black screen and a black border, but I don't expect it to be Sony since it says LG on the front.

    Unless these meters say "Fluke" or "Fluk3" or "Flukee" or some other confusing variant, I simply don't believe that someone is going to confuse it with a Fluke -- certainly not by anyone that knows enough about multimeters to know that they want a genuine Fluke meter.

  • by Obfuscant (592200) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @03:46PM (#46526939)

    The yellow coloring helps with identification

    I think that's why Fluke has the trademark. Yellow identifies "Fluke". I certainly don't know why I would associate "yellow" with "multimeter".

    safety.

    Ok. I'll ask. What possible safety function does coloring a multimeter yellow serve? Do you need to see multimeters coming at you so you can defend yourself? Don't pick up a multimeter because it might bite you? "Red touch yellow, friend of fellow..."?

  • by Bing Tsher E (943915) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @04:01PM (#46527087) Journal

    Not likely. There are many yellow colored multimeters out there. And Radio Shack doesn't rebrand high end equipment, they rebrand low and medium-end equipment. Putting a Radio Shack brand on a Fluke multimeter would degrade it and reduce what they could sell it for.

    Paid cross licensing in order to make a yellow multimeter? Has the whole world gone insane, or is Slashdot just over-infested with modern-IT people who think in weird terms like that?

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @04:06PM (#46527157) Homepage Journal

    I certainly don't know why I would associate "yellow" with "multimeter".

    Mine is yellow, and it's not made by either of the companies mentioned here. The one it replaced was yellow too.

    What possible safety function does coloring a multimeter yellow serve?

    Being easy to find.

  • by anotheryak (1823894) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @04:18PM (#46527285)

    Agreed, this is an attempt to copy Fluke's recent multimeter design.

    It's not just yellow. It has the same color scheme, same display layout, similar fonts, same case taper as a real Fluke. Brand name in same location as is the model number and description. It was designed to look as much like a Fluke as possible.

    If I saw the sparkfun multimeter sitting on a bench in my lab, I would think it was a Fluke until I got close.

    Sparkfun knew this when they bought them. Their fault. If they did not know it was designed to imitate a Fluke, they are in the wrong business. "Other companies did it and did not get caught" does not make it right. They risked it anyway and lost. Complaining about the trademark is not the solution.

  • by harrkev (623093) <kfmsdNO@SPAMharrelsonfamily.org> on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @04:19PM (#46527295) Homepage

    Yellow is not the only choice. Agilent seem to go with orange. But the color IS important. If you are an electrician working at somebody's house, when it is time to go, a bright yellow or orange box is much less likely to be set down and forgotten when it is time to pack up and leave.

  • by hermitdev (2792385) on Wednesday March 19, 2014 @08:39PM (#46529731)

    If I look at Fluke's [fluke.com] versus SparkFun's [sparkfun.com], I, as a human, cannot differentiate a difference in the colors. And they both clearly bear an extreme semblance, which is what the trademark is about.

    I'm curious, would you be so opposed if Pepsi copied a Coke can, and ever so slightly changed the tint of the red, such that it was "orange" and replaced the text with "Pepsi Cola"?

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