Little Laser’s in a big battle between builder and designer

A Laser races off Barrington. A Laser races off Barrington.

A Laser races off Barrington.

A Laser races off Barrington.

A little sailboat is in the thick of a big battle between its builders, chief among them a Portsmouth company, and the man who designed the boat 43 years ago.

Bruce Kirby, designer of the Laser dinghy, has filed suit demanding that, since they haven’t been paying him royalties he believes he is owed, companies building the boat cease doing so.

In fact, Mr. Kirby proposes a halt to the manufacture of Lasers altogether. In the Laser’s place, he intends to launch the Torch, a boat identical to the Laser in every way except for the logo on the sail.

That idea does not sit well with LaserPerformance, the Portsmouth company that has long built Lasers for North America and Europe, nor with sailing associations that organize Laser regattas and activities.

Asked about the lawsuit, LaserPerformance spokesman Greg Seekell said that “the company prefers not to comment on pending legal matters.”

But he passed on a statement by company CEO Bahman Kia from LaserPerformance headquarters in New London, Conn.:

“Bruce Kirby and Bruce Kirby Inc. have filed a legal complaint against LaserPerformance entities, the International Sailing Federation Limited (“ISAF”) and International Laser Class Association (“ILCA”). A number of false accusations and claims have been made in the document.

“LaserPerformance vehemently denies the allegations made by Mr. Kirby and maintains that these legal proceedings are vexatious in nature at best. LaserPerformance will take all necessary action to contest and defend these ill-conceived and meritless claims … LaserPerformance is the trademark owner of the Laser name and Starburst mark in all its territories. Mr. Kirby’s complaint does not dispute LaserPerformance’s ownership and use rights in connection thereto.”

Mr. Kirby drew the lines for what would become the Laser when challenged to design a small boat that could be carried atop a car. Others took note of the design when, in 1970, a sailing magazine sponsored a regatta for boats costing less than $1,000. The Weekender, as Mr. Kirby then called it, took its class with ease.

Renaming it the Laser, Mr. Kirby and Ian Bruce began manufacturing the boat in 1970-71. Since then, sales have topped 200,000, making it one of the most popular sailboats of all time. The boat is raced around the globe and in the Olympics.

But the relationship between Mr. Kirby and the builders soured awhile ago. Under the complex relationship, Mr. Kirby apparently owns the boat design but not the Laser name and logo. Others may hold the name, Mr. Kirby argues, but they owe him royalties for every boat built.

“LaserPerformance, in both Europe and North America, owns the name Laser and the sunburst symbol on the sail, but they don’t own the boat,” Mr. Kirby wrote last month. “Because I am owed quite a bit of money by these firms in unpaid design royalties, it has been possible for me to terminate their building rights … LaserPerformance were terminated as builders last year, but the lawsuit was filed this year because production of the Laser unlawfully continued after termination.”

In the meantime, his push for a name change has not been widely embraced.

“What the Laser sailing public must try to get their heads around is that it is not the name of the boat that matters; it is the boat itself — that 13’ 10” bit of fiberglass and aluminum that provides us with untold pleasure,” Mr. Kirby wrote. “I love the name Laser … but I know that if the boat is to be saved it must have a new name.” He adds, “I have been disappointed with the treatment handed to me by those who should be firmly on the side of the sailors, and so at the age of 84 I am throwing all my energy into (efforts) to save the little boat.”

Sailing associations, however, say they want nothing to do with changing the name to Torch and have instead taken steps to assure that Lasers continue to be built in Portsmouth.

The International Laser Class Association (also named in Mr. Kirby’s lawsuit) replied that, “For the avoidance of doubt, ICLA is not changing its name or taking on the management of a class association for any new brand of sailboat. Class legal Laser brand sailboats will continue to be available through ISAF and ILCA approved manufacturers and their existing dealers.”

To that end, ICLA has issued new plaques (Mr. Kirby calls this tantamount to theft of his design) for manufacturers to place on the Lasers they build.

“These plaques indicate that all required fees have been paid to both ISAF and ILCA,” the Laser association said. To get these plaques, “manufacturers must continue to adhere to the strict building specifications and one-design standards required.”

LaserPerformance builds a variety of small sailboats at its Portsmouth plant, among them Sunfish, Vanguard 15, Club 420, Club FJ and Bug.

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