When counterfeit connectors make it into the supply chain, they can cause big problems in equipment and systems that depend on them.
Knock-offs of connectors and other electronic components can cause big problems for purchasers. These parts are often deliberately designed to superficially resemble or imitate premium parts that have been manufactured with more stringent design specifications and that offer greater performance. Unwittingly using them as a component in an otherwise quality product could lead to equipment failure or malfunction, or to deficits in the performance of the end product, such as lower quality broadcast or recorded video, less accurate testing and measurement results, or other detrimental consequences. When these components find their way into medical devices, infrastructure, military and aerospace applications, or other critical equipment, counterfeit components can have life or death implications.
Counterfeit vs. Copy
The term “counterfeit” is a technical, legal term, referring to an item produced using form or functional aspects protected under formal intellectual property rights that have not been granted to the producer by the proper owner of those rights. Whether or not an item is technically a counterfeit is usually decided on a case-by-case basis in a local court of law.
Companies that produce counterfeit connectors can face potential civil and criminal liability, such as fines and payments of damages, as well as the confiscation of their goods. More importantly, purchasers and users of these parts can also face similar civil and criminal liability, often regardless of whether they knew the purchased parts were counterfeit or not.
Reading between the lines, if a local government does not accept or allow a particular intellectual property legal protection, if a third-party company is able to copy a product aspect that is not protected in their jurisdiction, or if the original manufacturer of a product in other ways fails to protect their patent, trademark, copyright, or other intellectual property under local laws, then these copies may be technically legal in that country, even if specific aspects, such as the look and feel of the item or even trade names, are brazenly recreated.
While the legal status of a component is obviously of critical importance to a purchaser, there are many other more inherent characteristics of a part that can cause significant damage to a purchaser’s operations and professional reputation, even if said copy is technically legal.
Quality connectors are meticulously engineered components designed to hold extremely tight tolerances using carefully specified materials selected to meet the demands of the application. Common deficiencies and issues experienced with counterfeit connectors include:
- Inferior mechanical performance
- Inferior electrical and temperature performance
- Inferior materials
- Dangerous materials or materials that don’t conform to Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) requirements
- Visibly sloppy machining and finishing
- Ethical considerations, such as use of child or slave labor, conflict materials, or non-compliance with regulatory initiatives
- Indeterminate Underwriters Laboratory (UL) recognition
- No FDA approval
- Inconsistent products
- Lack of documentation, recordkeeping, and traceability
Connector Suppliers vs. Counterfeiters
Currently, electronics industry associations are tending to focus limited resources primarily on even more commonly pirated components such as chips for computers and smart phones. The onus is on each connector manufacturer to do what they can to protect their customers, end users, and their own reputations and products.
LEMO has been proactive in this regard for more than a decade, and the current cornerstone of our efforts, incorporating what we have learned and guiding how we proceed, is encapsulated in our three-pronged LEMO Group Anti-Counterfeiting Policy — Prevent, Respond, Fight.
We work to prevent issues by taking such actions as training our people and educating our customers on the counterfeiting/copying problem. Our policy also calls for proactive due diligence to be applied to our own sourcing to ensure that we use only the highest quality, authentic raw materials in our products. The starting point for the response prong of our efforts is to first work to ensure that our intellectual property is fully and continually protected to the extent of local laws in every one of the dozens of countries where we serve customers. If the global Legal Department determines that illegal counterfeiting has likely occurred, the fight can take many forms on behalf of our customers. We have also aggressively protected our rights in local courts.
How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
Even if your connector supplier is working diligently to protect you and your customers against the loss of revenues and reputation that can occur by using substandard components, they cannot be everywhere at once. Purchasers also need to perform their own due diligence in order to make informed decisions. Best practices include:
- Know your seller. Most top-tier connector manufacturers only supply their products directly or through an authorized reseller or distributor network. If you’re ever in doubt about the legitimacy of a particular supplier, contact the manufacturer.
- Look for the brand name on the component. Few knock-off manufacturers are brazen enough to put another company’s name on their products, although it does happen. In many countries, third-party manufacturers can make use of the brand value of another company’s name in their advertising, such as using phrases such as “LEMO-like,” “LEMO compatible,” or “LEMO substitute.”
- Examine the appearance. Attempts to copy the look and feel of a connector (with varying degrees of skill and success) are more common, in spite of the fact that these identifying features are usually protected as intellectual property as well.
- Compare the product to an official photo. Sometimes knock-off manufacturers will take an actual photo of a premium connector and use it in their own sales descriptions. Comparing the product received with the photo shown can often be a dead giveaway.
- Price. If an unfamiliar supplier is offering the “same” product at a significantly lower price than what you paid last time from a legitimate dealer, or significantly lower than offers received from other distributors, then it is not likely to really be the same product.
- Alert partner companies. Large device manufacturers can also become victims not through their own actions but through those of third-party companies, usually smaller operations that make ancillary equipment or accessories that are made to be used in conjunction with the main device. If the connector on a third-party product is a knock-off not made to the specs that the OEM requires, the entire system can fail when the end user operates it.
- Alert your assemblers. There might not be a feedback loop to alert you if a technician on the floor is experiencing frequent abnormalities such as blackening or melting when welding or working with components. Ensure that there is a mechanism to quickly inform appropriate parties so that action can be taken to eliminate problems quickly and minimize damage.
When it comes to counterfeiting, the good news is that many jurisdictions that, in our opinion, may have been more friendly to alleged counterfeiters in the past are evolving to demonstrate greater respect for the intellectual property of others. The bad news is that counterfeiters are definitely getting better at imitating the look and feel of goods and making inferior and even dangerous products look more and more like the real thing. In reality, counterfeiting probably can never be stopped altogether, but we believe that, together, it can be curtailed significantly.
By Steven Lassen, Products and Applications Manager, LEMO USA
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