FTDI's CEO Fred Dart has given a rare interview to explain that the company's sometimes-unpopular anti-counterfeiting practices are part of a fightback against a professional Chinese knock-off operation.
Adafruit scored the chat, which is published here.
Scotland-based FTDI ran into users' ire last year when people found its drivers would brick products that used counterfeit chips. It withdrew that destructive software. In January, an updated driver was spotted injecting data into the serial stream if the chip wasn't an original.
Dart said his company has a constant problem with Chinese knock-off chips presenting themselves as legit FTDI parts: the FT232RL and "occasionally the older FT232BL." Both of these devices are popular in USB-to-serial cables, and that's where the knock-offs also appear.
Rather than designing their own serial chips, Dart says, the counterfeiters program a generic microcontroller (MCU) to emulate FTDI's functionality, resulting in a product that's badly behaved, unstable, and relying on FTDI's driver software.
"So, action number one was to detect counterfeit chips and stop them illegally using our drivers (they steal our USB VID and PID in order to masquerade as an FTDI chip)," said Dart. "This in no way affects the millions of genuine FTDI users and allowed us to analyse the situation a lot better."
The knock-off chips end up in end-user products after being flogged anonymously on eBay, Amazon and Alibaba out of the "infamous Shenzen component market," he claimed.
Although perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake – remember, FTDI is not one of the industry's giants – Dart says the main danger for the company is that the fake chips damage its reputation.
"Their substandard performance and total disregard to quality will damage our hard-won reputation as people mistake these fakes for the genuine article. It's our duty to protect ourselves and our much valued customers," he said.
Dart reckons the company is "dealing with a professional criminal gang here who counterfeit a lot more than just one or two chips."
"I'm pretty sure it's the same gang that flooded the market with fake Prolific PL2303 chips a few years ago," he said. While FTDI has had success in getting chips impounded in the US, "Chinese law leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to counterfeiting."
After last year's criticism, Dart reckons today's approach, in which the driver refuses to work if it detects a counterfeit (without bricking the product), is endorsed by most of its customers.
"Following our previous driver release, I've had many helpful suggestions on how the driver should respond when it finds a counterfeit chip. We can't please everyone, but the vast majority voted for this approach and that's what we did," he said. ®