I’ll have another piece shortly on the rise of the unaccredited certificate mills in AS9100, but in researching that, I came across a shockingly dumb oversight by IAQG which basically handed the keys to the con men.

First, some basics. IAQG develops the AS9100 family of standards. SAE then publishes the documents. Certification bodies (“registrars”) audit companies and issue AS9100 certificates, and the Accreditation Bodies (like ANAB) accredit the CB’s to make sure such audits are conducted properly, objectively, and without any conflicts of interest.

Enter the unaccredited certificate mills. These are “companies” (usually individuals with a fresh supply of printer ink and a set of juevos grandes) that not only offer consulting services, but then will provide duped clients a non-accredited AS9100 certificate. This flies against all the common sense notions that a person shouldn’t certify their own work, it’s a conflict of interest, they are not recognized by the aero primes, yadda yadda… these guys simply don’t care, and they will throw up enough quasi-libertarian, Ayn Randian nonsense to make their scummy tactics appear almost downright philosophical. But the end result is a meaningless piece of paper issued by a guy whose expertise lies not in auditing, but in depositing other people’s checks, and then sleeping guiltlessly for a solid 8 hours every night.

The IAQG recently put out a sternly worded warning against such certificate mills, reminding the aerospace community to be on the lookout for them. That had all the effect of an announcement to bird watchers; those interested in getting a quick, cheap cert will go into the blinds and lift their binoculars in search of these elusive creatures, while the rest of the world yawns over how incredibly boring the whole thing is.

Here’s the sad part. The IAQG had a simple, cheap and effective remedy at their disposal which could have permanently prevented any unaccredited CB from operating at all: trademark law.

Right now SAE claims copyright on AS9100 and related standards, but only as the publisher. And that’s copyright, not trademark. The IAQG could have filed a trademark claim years ago for “AS9100” and all the variations thereof, before they ever published the first standard. (In retrospect, the AAQG should have done it, but that’s a moot point.)

Take, for example, a common certification coffee lovers see every day: Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee. This certification is intended to verify that coffee beans are grown and harvested in a manner that does not damage  fragile ranforest ecosystems. The phrase and logo for “Rainforest Alliance Certified” is fully trademarked by the Rainforest Alliance non-profit organization. No one can print up fake Rainforest Alliance certificates without running afoul of trademark law, and getting their asses sued by the owners. So the Alliance locked down their claim on the certification early.

Likewise the CMMI standard is strongly protected by trademarks filed by its creator, Carnegie Mellon University. You can’t even announce you are a CMMI consultant without their approval. It’s a tightly run operation, and they do not suffer scammers.

The IAQG? Not so much. A trademark search for “AS9100” shows only one entry ever submitted to the US Patent and Trademark Office, for a dead claim entered by QAI Training for “The AS9100 Advisor.” Not a single other claim has ever been made using the term.

Patent trolls beware, though: putting in a squatter claim now would likely fail. IAQG, AAQG and SAE all have solid cases to make to defend on such a claim and prevent it from coming to fruition.

But now it wouldn’t be easy for IAQG, either; they have established a precedence of not caring. Even if they get a mark filed, they’d have a hard time retroactively going after certificate mills who have been publishing fake AS9100 certs for years, who would have a potentially solid defense that they had been using the mark almost as much as IAQG. The irony: the thieves could claim partial ownership of the stolen property, and prevent the real owner from reclaiming it.

Had the IAQG trademarked “AS9100” in all its forms from the beginning, they could not only have licensed the term for use by consultants, trainers, book authors, AB’s and CB’s (meaning a ton of additional revenue), they would have created a nearly impenetrable firewall against the certificate mills. Unaccredited registrars would have been shut down and sued blind before the ink on their first fake certificate dried.

But the rocket scientists at Boeing didn’t think that far ahead, and so left IAQG and the entire AS9100 certification scheme vulnerable to anyone with enough electricity to run a dot matrix printer. The risks to confidence in AS9100 certificates are obvious, but the problem jeopardizes product quality, prices, jobs and even the public health.

And it all could have been prevented if the IAQG had just spent $750 on a trademark application, probably the amount they spend on donuts at a typical Registration Management Committee meeting.

Well, now they know. IAQG, if you do take my advice, you can send me donuts. That, and the satisfaction that the IAQG owes me its very survival, would be payment enough.

About Christopher Paris

Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001 and Surviving AS9100. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.

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