Monday, March 28, 2011

Three Laser Classes?

I've had a suspicion for some time that something weird was going on with the Laser builders and trademark owners. There was a mysterious ad on Scuttlebutt Europe last summer from an outfit called Global Sailing "looking for enthusiastic and well established marine dealers to become national or multi national distributors in the European region for the Bruce Kirby designed Olympic Sailing Dinghy." They were obviously talking about the Laser, and I thought there already was a Laser builder for Europe, Laser Performance Europe. What was that all about? There were some other cryptic comments on forums and in meeting minutes that made me suspect something was afoot too.

Now it's all out in the open. The Laser International Class announced today a proposed class rule change to the Fundamental Rule. That's really serious. The Fundamental Rule basically says a Laser is a Laser and you can't mess with it. Apparently there's a dispute as to who really has the rights to build Lasers for most of the world and there's a real danger that the Laser Class may split three ways and even lose its Olympic status.

Holey moley! It's a good thing this news wasn't announced on Friday (April 1) else nobody would believe it.

The current class rules currently say that a builder of legal Lasers must have "a building agreement from Bruce Kirby or Bruce Kirby Inc." (Bruce Kirby is the original designer of the Laser.) According to the International Laser Class Association (ILCA) website "a dispute has arisen between parties who claim to be representing Kirby’s interests: a New Zealand company called Global Sailing; and Laser Performance Europe (LPE), one of the manufacturers, which holds the Laser trademark rights for Europe, South America, Africa and Asia... The dispute centers on whether a valid 'design rights holder' agreement exists with LPE... Each of the parties to the conflict has threatened ILCA in various ways – Global Sailing has said it may form a new class association for a 'Kirby Sailboat.' LPE informed the ILCA that it intends to form its own 'Laser' class. We may therefore end up with three different classes and may lose the Olympic status."

My head is spinning.

The announcement goes on to say that because of this conflict "there may not be a sufficient quantity of new Laser boats compliant with the ILCA Class Rules available in Europe and other countries in 2011 and beyond to satisfy the demand of its current and future ILCA members."

OMG. This is serious.

The class proposes fixing the problem by changing the definition of what constitutes a legal Laser builder, and is asking class members to vote to approve the change.

This is complicated. The announcement leaves a lot of questions unanswered, Not least, who is Global Sailing and how did they come to be "representing Kirby's interests"? The whole proposal needs more explanation and consideration. This could get messy.

Update 4 April
Since I first published this post, some of the background to this issue has been made public, although there is still much unknown and a spirited debate about the advisability and impact of the proposed rule change continues in various forums.
For more up to date information check out...
this thread on the Laser Forum and
this interview with Bruce Kirby on Sail World.


Brian said...

Curious if this GS got sold a "bill of goods" (expired design rights/patents/??), PSE let their agreement lapse somehow and is relying on one from another region now that they're all one big corporation, or something else entirely!

Definitely a lack of quality info on this!

Tillerman said...

Right Brian. It's all very confusing. We certainly need more quality info on this. I'd like to hear Global Sailing's point of view on this. And Bruce Kirby's.

The proposed rule change certainly sounds like an attempt to maintain the status quo in favor of the current builders and the current class.

Maybe that's right. Or maybe we need a change.

Pat said...

How did this happen in one of the biggest sailing classes in the world? One would expect ILCA to be run professionally commensurate with the number of participants and amount of activity in the class.

It's not exactly a tragedy, but sounds like a governance issue that never should have fallen this far.

More seriously, sailors on the west coast are mourning and inquiring about the latest sailing tragedy, with two lives lost yesterday in San Diego. I put some preliminary musings up in

Baydog said...

Geez, it seems like when all one-design sailboats were made outta wood, it didn't matter who built them, as long as they were up to spec.

Tillerman said...

Pat, I think you are being unfair to the ILCA in implying that this is their fault.

There have always been agreements between the owner(s) of the intellectual property rights to the Laser and the builders of Lasers, to which ILCA is not a party and of which they have no knowledge. It sounds as if there is now a dispute between one of the builders and the owner of some of these IP rights. ILCA is attempting to prevent this becoming a major problem to its members by proposing this rule change.

Whether the proposed rule change is really the best solution is certainly open to debate. But I don't think you can fault ILCA for the issue arising in the first place.

Pat said...

So, ILCA does NOT have all the power in this situation but instead power is distributed (perhaps in more ways than Laser sailors thought?). Wow.

Of course, with potential controversy about sails as well, about the only way things could get worse is if you created a Foiling Laser.

Tillerman said...

Pat, ILCA has never had "all the power" in the Laser world and any Laser sailor who has taken any interest in class affairs is well aware of this.

There was always a complicated three way relationship between the designer (Bruce Kirby), the builders and the class. The class (as far as I know) has never owned the Laser trademark or the Laser design rights.

If you are really interested in understanding the issue better, there is now a thread on the Laser forum where the questions I raised at the end of this post have already been answered.

Tim said...

This is very sad, and potentially life threatening for the most successful dinghy class ever.

Sadly, the motivation is greed, by someone, somewhere. If the class wasnt very commercially successful no one would be in the least bit interested in it - especially not the lawyers.

The Firefly class in the UK is a tightly controlled - in that not just anyone can build a hull, and there is only one sailmaker and one spar manufacturer. I understand that many years ago the class association bought the rights to the designs. It means that the members now decide who the suppliers are. Shame this didn't happen with the Laser, but I guess it would have been too expensive and there were too many 'fingers in the pie'.

Tillerman said...

Actually Tim, in spite of the rather complicated relationships with builders and the design rights owner, the Laser class does have some say in who the builders are. The builders do have to be approved by the ILCA. Indeed, this rule change is about removing a certain restriction on who the class can approve as builders.

It's a complicated situation but don't write the Laser class off just yet, Tim. I encourage anyone really interested in understanding this to follow the forum thread referenced in my previous comment. I'm not going to repost everything from there to here.

BlueVark said...

I sail an old(five digit sail No.) Laser. This is my nightmare scenario. I have a horrible premonition that I will soon be left out in the cold. I will not be sailing an LPE "New Laser" nor a Global Sailing "Kirby Boat". I will be left in the rapidly diminishing "Classic Laser" class scrabbling about for parts no one makes anymore. :(

Someone tell me i am being over melodramatic... PLEASE!

Tillerman said...

BlueVark - you are being over melodramatic. And so am I, probably.

Tim said...

I should have read the thread on the Laser Forum before making my earlier post. Although I still cannot get my head around what the issue(s) really are, and therefore what the implications are for the Laser Class.

It does seem a shame that Bruce Kirby, if he really had the Laser Class at heart, didn't offer whatever rights he had to the design/patents/trademarks to the class assocaition when he retired/sold up. Maybe he did, and we just never got to hear about it. Maybe he thought the class could never afford them, or they wouldnt have any impact on the longevity of the class. Clearly he was wrong.

Either that, or the people at HQ have got completely the wrong end of the stick and have now stirred up a hornets nest, and got us all running around thinking the world is about to end. It does have the whiff of panic / desperation about it.

What are we voting for again? I've no idea (at the moment).

Tillerman said...

Personally I'm not voting for anything just yet. I want to hear all sides of the argument first.

The GM of the Australian builder PSA has posted on the forum and revealed that as one of the four members of the class advisory council he voted against this rule change. Apparently his company and this outfit Global Sailing (who bought Bruce Kirby Inc.) are owned by the same family. So I really want to hear from him or anyone from Global sailing and PSA as to what their intentions are, and whether they can offer the class some better way forwards, and what their arguments are as to why the class should reject the rule change.

Tillerman said...

And what are we voting for? As I understand it...

1. The fundamental Laser class rule currently says a legal builder is a manufacturer who has a building agreement from Bruce Kirby or Bruce Kirby Inc. to build the Laser.

2. Bruce Kirby sold Bruce Kirby Inc. and his design rights to Global Sailing Limited.

3. Now the class wants us to vote to delete the requirement in the fundamental rule that a legal builder has to have a building agreement from Bruce Kirby or Bruce Kirby Inc.

4. So the power to decide who can build legal Lasers is being taken away from Bruce Kirby Inc. even though somebody just bought that company presumably thinking that it gave them the power to decide who can build legal Lasers.

Got it?

BlueVark said...

I was being overdramatic, of course.

At the end of the day, at the level I sail at I just want to be able to sail my old Laser fairly and competitively aginst a similar standard sailor in a new one. Ours is one of the few classes where that is truly possible even among other one design boats and to my mind is a mainstay of the appeal and success of the class.

Whatever the technicalities and motivations behind the current issue anything that potentially threatens that stabilty is a real worry.

Anonymous said...

Very simple, WE have the Cheque books, we need to unite under ICLA and boycott, Why do we need to put up with poor quality control, a main that is actually a spinnaker with battens(after a week reminds you of your grandmother,) and foils made of recycled contraceptives...

Ricardo Lobato said...

We have now 3 criterias for a builder:

1) Be approved by ILCA and ISAF
2) Licenced by Kirby
3) Has right to use Laser trademark

ILCA wants to get rid of number two. Why not get rid of number 3 too? I think it isn't fair not to respect the Kirby licence or trademark rights. But if they really wants to get the control they should go further on it.

Tillerman said...

That idea crossed my mind too Ricardo. But on consideration, I don't think it's where we want to go.

The Laser name has huge value. It's one of the best known brands in the sailing world. I can't imagine why the Laser class would want to authorize someone to build boats to be raced as part of our class if they couldn't be called Lasers. It would just dilute the strength of the brand and confuse the hell out of everyone. Not to mention we probably couldn't call ourselves the Laser class any more.

It's nice to speculate that the class would continue to be as strong if we abandoned the Laser name and all started sailing a "Kirby 14" (or whatever) but somehow I doubt it would work out that way.

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