Since 2005, Arduino has helped innovative tinkerers bring their creations to life, with a range of single-board microcontrollers and microcontroller kits that allow anyone to access simple, low-cost options for creating digital projects. They have been so successful that they’ve inspired a global movement of makers, with vibrant communities built around developing and sharing Arduino’s open-source hardware and software.
Arduino’s software and hardware are intellectual property developed following endless prototyping, research and development. The profits Arduino makes on its board sales directly fund this expensive work. While the open-source licensing allows users to modify software and hardware designs to create whatever they desire, the Arduino name can’t be used to sell derived or copied products as if they were original.
Sarah Therner, Head of Intellectual Property at Arduino, explains in this interview how intellectual property is used to protect technology and innovation within an organisation based on an open-source philosophy.
Sarah Therner, Head of Intellectual Property at Arduino
‘Our intellectual property is the source that makes it possible to preserve the open-source philosophy, support our community and enable new innovations.’
To begin, can you tell us about the role that intellectual property (IP) plays in Arduino’s business model?
Operating under an open-source model means the source code for our software and the designs for our hardware are available for free and can be modified and redistributed at will. This philosophy is what has led us to become such a huge player in the world of interactive electronics, enabling the creation of almost anything imaginable – from water quality monitoring systems and LED controllers, to musical instruments and digital chess boards.
We believe in open source because it’s centred around collaboration: whenever the open-source hardware designs of Arduino boards are used and remixed to make more innovative projects or to spread knowledge, we all win. But whenever this translates just to plain copies of low quality being placed on the market and even using the official Arduino logo or other subtle techniques to deceive buyers, there’s no innovation and no contribution to the community.
Open source and commercial usage are good friends, and growing a business-oriented ecosystem of players is one of the goals of the Arduino project, but this shall not be detrimental to the sustainability of the project itself: when open-source hardware and open-source software are tightly coupled, counterfeiters benefit from unfair competition, as the development of the software and all the costs related to growing the ecosystem are only on the shoulders of the original organisation and the other active contributors.
Our intellectual property is the source that makes it possible to preserve the open-source philosophy, support our community and enable new innovations.
With a long-standing reputation for being creative, how does Arduino adapt to protecting its brand?
Communication is key. We take pride in having solved numerous brand infringement issues simply by communication. We want to see more innovations based on Arduino technology and would not like to block anyone’s creativity. There is also a common misconception about the open-source concept. Some developers believe that the Arduino name and logo are free to use and that they have made an Arduino product when using the free source code or design files. This is not the case. Alternatively, a developer chooses to include the Arduino name or logo on their product as a tribute to the brand. This is flattering of course, but we need to prevent it since it adds confusion for customers.
With that in mind, it is important for us to not only react to the incorrect usage of a trademark, but even more importantly, to take the time to explain how to get it right. That is beneficial both for us and for the developer in the future, especially if we can get in touch with the developer at an early stage in their career. We therefore monitor smaller marketplaces, crowdfunding campaigns, online learning and teaching platforms, social media community groups where the commercial impact still is small and the violations not yet as damaging to the Arduino brand. It is noticeable to us that the time spent on educating users, developers and sellers has an effect on the market. Furthermore, the knowledge spreads through our global community in their respective channels and more and more developers copy the correct behaviour.
‘IP protection is not just about defending your right to a trade mark, it is also an important aspect of a company’s brand reputation.’
Anyone can create open-source hardware and software; furthermore, Arduino prides itself on its global user community and developer ecosystem. What strategy does Arduino offer to prevent counterfeiting and instil trust in its products?
Preventing counterfeits is a complex, multi-layered question. Communicating directly with developers as mentioned in the previous question is one aspect of it. However, when it comes to large scale production and sales of counterfeit products with a clear aim of profiting off the Arduino brand, that requires a different approach.
We have learned over time that in order to reach a long-term sustainable solution, it is crucial to collaborate with each marketplace to prevent the products from even entering the market. Reducing available sales channels for these products, making the commercial profit more difficult to achieve, has the effect of reducing the interest of manufacturers and sellers. It is work that requires patience, persistence and constant monitoring. Once a seller is blocked on one marketplace, they are likely to appear on another one. We follow these sellers from platform to platform, keep reporting them and in a way wear them out. We have successful cases like this that have ended with the seller changing their product line.
We have already touched on counterfeiting. What other challenges does Arduino face in global online marketplaces today?
What stands out the most is the fact that Arduino is often used as a product category, instead of being respected as a brand, by marketplaces. In the Arduino product category, we thus see a mix of original Arduino products and other brands that are based on Arduino technology. This is confusing for the customers and challenging for us to deal with. Our tech support often receives support requests from customers who believe that they have purchased an Arduino product when in fact it is another brand. In addition, this behaviour also counteracts our preventive work of educating and spreading knowledge about Arduino IP and trademark usage.
The fact that Arduino is used as a category means that the word is also used as a keyword. This has a concrete effect, in that some marketplaces offer the sellers to buy keywords or pay for a listing to appear as sponsored, meaning a product of a third-party brand will appear before an original Arduino when the customer searches for it.
Just as sellers and developers may not know what applies to trade mark usage for open-source technology products, nor did online marketplaces. We can today see improvement on some marketplaces, such as Amazon and Alibaba, as an effect of us working directly with the brand protection teams on each marketplace. Amazon India, as one example, offered to clean up their marketplace themselves, and in parallel educate their sellers using trade mark guidelines that we provided. The Alibaba Group, on the other hand, has proven to be very responsive to Arduino as a brand, and provided us with support on how to best manage complex cases on the Alibaba website.
In general, marketplaces seem interested in educating their sellers, and if the violation is simply about trade mark misuse, not a counterfeit product, they modify the listing instead of closing it. This follows our philosophy, and we are happy to provide support to marketplaces in this sense. Mercadolibre is a marketplace that has put significant effort into this approach by starting a seller educational program. We have worked together with them to create specific trade mark guides for their marketplace that, with the help of the team at Mercadolibre, got translated to several languages.
When someone infringes Arduino’s IP rights, which enforcement measures do you employ as part of your commercial strategy?
Since Arduino products are sold worldwide, there are also counterfeits and other trade mark violations all over the world. We therefore need to prioritise based on the type of violation and geographic region. The priority is set to support our own sales channels and main markets, and alternatively, markets where we want to grow further.
With the number of marketplaces and individual online stores in existence, we realised a few years back that we needed a system that can scan the online market, identify, categorise and value violations, and enforce the law following our priority. We then engaged Incopro, one of the global leaders in enterprise brand protection, who provides this service. On a daily basis, Incopro’s Talisman software scans over 50 marketplaces for us, as well as uncountable domains and social media accounts. At Incopro, we have a dedicated team of brand protection agents to enforce the findings globally. The close collaboration with Incopro ensures that our enforcement strategy is targeted and follows our overall IP strategy.
Since all marketplaces have their own, similar but individual, reporting systems, it is important to learn how to best leverage those systems to get the most efficient result. With Amazon for instance, we initially used the Report a Violation tool to report infringements that could then be removed after an investigation by Amazon.
Then Amazon launched Project Zero, with its immediate self-service counterfeit removal function. We quickly enrolled, since the speed of Project Zero allowed us to identify and remove counterfeit listings faster than ever before.
To finish, what advice would Arduino give to start-ups and entrepreneurs on the importance of protecting their IP rights and the risks they incur should they not protect them?
In general, it is important to start early in the process, even if you are not sure if the start-up of your innovation will become established. Protect your brand and product names with trade marks, and put time into investigating these trade marks before filing so there is no conflict with existing trade marks of others.
At Arduino, we see IP protection as a revenue centre, not a cost centre. It might sound like a minor detail, but it sets the tone for how we in the IP team, but also our colleagues, value the work that we do.
IP protection is not just about defending your right to a trade mark, it is also an important aspect of a company’s brand reputation. Being prepared and consistent instils trust in the customers and helps grow the value of your brand.