One would have thought that Behringer is a company that needs to keep its nose clean. Having been challenged more than once of copying other manufacturers' designs, clearly Behringer needs to establish a long-term reputation for good honest value for money that makes its history irrelevant.
But that doesn't seem to be happening. I'll state my position clearly at the outset – I have nothing against Behringer products. They generally do the job effectively at a low price point. And – highest praise – most of Behringer's equipment plugs directly into the mains without requiring a 'wall wart'. And when a pro audio company is hit with a proposal for a fine of $1 million, that surely cannot go uncommented.
The problem is that Behringer has marketed fifty products in the USA without certification by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).
Certification is important. Digital electronic equipment generates radio-frequency energy that has the potential to cause interference in other equipment. Without regulation, there would be a free-for-all where some equipment would be massively interference-producing, while other equipment would be very sensitive to such interference. Therefore the rules require that equipment neither generates excess radio-frequency energy, nor is unduly susceptible to it. Without this regulation, we would be in something of a mess.
(As an aside, I often work in a building that is subject to interference from a powerful radio transmission coming from a nearby high-security police station. The problems caused by the interference have been reduced by encasing the building entirely in wire mesh. Sounds like a drastic solution? Actually, it was done to keep the building together as lumps of concrete were falling off. But the mesh forms an excellent example of a Faraday cage.)
Apparently, Behringer didn't realize that equipment that was certified under the CE mark (Conformité Européenne) did not necessarily mean that it would satisfy the FCC.
Indeed, after being warned by the FCC that there was a problem, Behringer continued to market equipment in the US.
Some reports have criticized Behringer for only testing a limited range of its products for CE compliance. However, the CE mark doesn't necessarily require that every product is tested so this in itself is not a problem.
Let's turn this around however and examine whether the penalty ($1 million remember) is proportional to the crime…
Firstly, it is feasible that Behringer considered that CE certification was adequate to market its products in the US. Presumably Behringer had legal advice that told it so.
The FCC only became involved when a complaint was made on March 29, 2004. By whom, I do not know – I wonder if anyone reading this does. The FCC sent a 'letter of inquiry' to Behringer.
Behringer's response was honest and open, saying that it had marketed 1.17 million units of 66 models since January 2000. It had tested a range of these models for CE compliance. Behringer also promised to initiate procedures to ensure FCC compliance and sent reports on 16 models to the FCC.
This seems to me like a reasonable response, assuming that Behringer intended to test the remaining 50 models in due course.
The FCC did not agree. To the FCC, its rules were being flouted and Behringer needed to be published. And the punishment would take the form of a $7000 penalty for each of the 50 untested models, and a $650,000 'bonus' penalty for disregarding the FCC's warnings.
It seems that the FCC expected Behringer to withdraw its products from the market until testing and certification was completed.
So here we have the basis for an interesting argument. No question has been raised about Behringer's conformance with CE, which is good enough for Europe – widely regarded as a civilized continent. Behringer must have taken legal advice on whether CE was adequate to market products in the US, therefore it believed that it was acting correctly.
The FCC, on pointing out to Behringer that it wanted its own testing standards to be applied to every model, expected Behringer simply to stop marketing its products in the US, thus denying these products to people keen to buy.
So who is right here? And is the $1 million dollar fine proportional to the offence?
Personally, I'm with Behringer on this one. What do you think?