Fake Laser Sailboats at 2024 Paris Olympics?
It’s all official. Or at least nearly official. The membership of the Laser sailboat class just needs to vote yes to a change in its internal rules, and we may see fake Laser sailboats at the Paris 2024 Olympics. At least that’s what the Laser class wants us to believe.
Fake Lasers are not Fake News. This is a scenario that is contemplated not only by the organization governing the Laser class but also by World Sailing – the international governing body of the sport of sailing, that oversees the sport globally and reports to the International Olympic Committee when it comes to the sailing competitions for the 2024 Olympics.
The story goes like this. The change in the Laser class regulations will allow new companies to build the boat and to sell them with an alternate name and logo of their choosing, or even as generic boats without a name or logo – as a way to circumvent the existing Laser trademarks held by Velum – a sister company to the UK-based LaserPerformance corporation.
The sailboats would be built according to the specification of the so called « Laser Construction Manual, » and would be controlled by the International Laser Class Association ILCA), but they would not be called Lasers.
These are therefore « Fake Lasers » that the Laser class intends to propose to World Sailing and the International Olympic Committee for the 2024 Paris Olympics, to be sailed in Marseille.
This plan has been in the works, in various forms, for a significant amount of time. Last March, the Laser class ILCA announced a name change to the boat, and then confirmed what we previously announced, i.e. that the boat would be called the « ILCA » dinghy. A trademark was applied for the “ILCA” dinghy in June 2018, and was approved on October 23 2018 for the whole European Union. Another trademark that ILCA attempted to register was for the « Gamma » sailboat, but that seems to be abandoned. Those applications were done by a Delaware « Weather Helm » corporation.
The most recent approach by the Laser class is to allow the various approved manufacturers to name the boat as they see fit, or to sell them as generic boats, without a name. The Laser class – which is the International Laser Class Association – claims it can organize competitions with real Lasers along with these fake Lasers – either bearing no name, or bearing an alternative name.
As France is located in a region where LaserPerformance controls the Laser trademark, there can’t be any real, genuine Lasers for the Paris Olympics without a direct trademark infringement. Hence what is now proposed by the Laser class, in the absence of negotiated agreement in the next two weeks, is those fake Lasers. World Sailing has indeed set an August 1st 2019 deadline for the parties to come to an agreement.
The official position of the Laser class is that its priority is to convince the trademark owners to find a negotiated solution. But in its Sailing Illustrated editorial of July 17, the president of the class Tracy Usher states, regarding the question of trademark licensing to new builders, that « ILCA is not aware of any negotiation or discussions taking place between the three trademark owners. »
The trademark owners are LaserPerformance (via another corporation called Velum), which owns the Laser trademark for the whole world, except two small markets in Oceania and East Asia, where the trademarks are owned by Performance Sailcraft Australia (PSA) and Performance Sailcraft Japan (PSJ).
Under the current trademark agreements, neither PSA nor PSJ are allowed to export boats outside their own trademark area. This the system that the Laser class attempts to dismantle, following a request by World Sailing to introduce more free market competition in the sailing dinghy business.
Commercial Opportunities for Aussie / Chinese Boats
With the proposed rule change, the class would allow PSA, PSJ and any new approved builder to export those fake Lasers – either generic ones or bearing some alternative name – to Europe, North America, South America, Africa, etc … all regions falling under the Laser trademark controlled by LaserPerformance.
What needs to be remembered is that the Laser class terminated, on March 28 2019, LaserPerformance as a builder. Since then, apart from some exceptions granted with the mediation of World Sailing, dealers located in markets controlled by LaserPerformance, i.e. most markets in the world, cannot legally procure boats for their customers.
At the mid-year World Sailing meeting, the Laser class came up with a long list of builders that expressed interest. But until there is approval by World Sailing, these will remain expressions of interest, and some interested builders have privately expressed concerns about the complex and costly requirements imposed by the class.
Until its termination, LaserPerformance was by far the most dominant player. Now, the main builder is Performance Sailcraft Australia – a company that has also been involved in the past few years in developing the new « C » rigs for the boat. The intention, backed by the Laser class president, is to ultimately change the existing rigs (sails, masts, booms) of the boat and to replace them with those new C rigs globally.
The number of boats typically produced by LaserPerformance is around 2000 per year, versus just about 250 boats for PSA and some 50 boats for PSJ.
The termination of LaserPerformance means that their 2000 boats, i.e. over 80% of the market for new boats globally, is up for grabs. This is seen as a lucrative opportunity in some quarters, quite evidently.
In the past days, there has been word of talks between PSA and Chinese boat builders – in order to get boats produced in China at very low cost. There are indeed already several builders in China producing dinghies, such as the Club 420 and the Optimist, to name just two examples. Current Laser builders are located in high labour cost countries, particularly PSA in Australia, where the minimum wage nears AUS$ 20 per hour, i.e. about 10 times higher than in China.
The scenario one hears about is for PSA to subcontract to a Chinese producer for large amounts of boats annually, and then the boats to be exported globally. We are talking here about thousands of boats annually, hence a huge increase compared to PSA’s current production.
For this commercial plan to work, in most countries, the boats cannot be Lasers. The fake Lasers would instead be produced and exported, either under an alternate name like “ILCA”, or without a name.
If very low cost fake Lasers are produced in China and exported globally, it’s obviously unlikely that many new builders, if any, will emerge.
Maybe there won’t be any candidate, especially as there are indications that new builders would have to pay relatively steep annual fees – figures of US$100,000 and US$200,000 annually have been mentioned by the Laser class in that regard.
Doubts can even be expressed about the viability of the Japanese builder, which is said to produce just some 50 boats per year.
Another hurdle for new builders are the design fees on the Laser, to be paid to the New-Zealand corporation Global Sailing, which is closely related to PSA. The company bought those rights to the Laser Construction Manual from Bruce Kirby, apparently in 2009, but it’s unclear if those rights are valid.
It appears that LaserPerformance, when still producing boats, was not paying royalties for those rights. New builders, to be approved, are however asked to do so by the Laser class.
European Laser class officials have asked for the reinstatement of LaserPerformance as a builder, something the company is asking through a joint inspection by World Sailing and ILCA.
No-one contests the conformity of the boats produced by LaserPerformance, and the company actually provided 120 boats for the ongoing World Sailing Youth Worlds in Poland. But there is obvious opposition to the reinstatement of LaserPerformance, which would jeopardize the above described commercial scenario.
Will LaserPerformance start litigation for trademark infringement? Very likely, if it has not started yet, because of the major financial losses to be incurred if the Laser trademarks become sort of irrelevant. This will be a complex case, with multiple jurisdictions involved.
Remember that there is still ongoing court proceedings for the previous attempt, that time by Bruce Kirby, to change the name of the Laser to the “Kirby Torch” in 2012. At the time, the Laser class stayed outside the case. This time, ILCA will be at the center of it, with hefty legal fees at stake. Who will pay for ILCA’s hefty legal bills, if not the members?
LaserPerformance takes litigation seriously. For example, in 2012, it sued the Belgian dealer OptiTeam for importing and selling boats and parts manufactured by PSA. The judge ruled in favor of LaserPerformance. An appeal was denied in 2015 and the 2013 judgement was upheld. Apparently, OptiTeam filed for bankruptcy and LaserPerformance was unable to collect damages.
If a legal war over intellectual property rights emerges between LaserPerformance, ILCA and PSA, it may take multiple years before things are adjudicated in court. Until then, it’s unclear if dealers will dare distributing fake Lasers as there will be risks of having to pay substantial financial compensations to LaserPerformance. Pretty fast, there will also be shortages of parts, sails, etc.
The irony is that, except in a few regions such as North America, dealers are not complaining that much about LaserPerformance. Many of them, particularly in Europe, actually have pretty positive business partnerships with the company. Those companies are not interested in distributing fake Lasers and in taking substantial legal risks by doing so. But they may have to if they want to continue to serve the sailors.
For the fake Lasers to become a reality at the Paris Olympics, several hurdles remain to be cleared. First, World Sailing will need formally approve the class rule allowing for multiple brands and generic boats to be sailed under the umbrella of the Laser class. It’s not clear how World Sailing will react this time. Last April, following the announcement of the name change to “ILCA Dinghy,” World Sailing reacted nearly instantly and clarified its position.
In its April 27 statement, it can be read: “World Sailing has not endorsed or pre-approved the proposed name change of the Laser to the ILCA Dinghy” … “World Sailing will deal with any applications for class rule changes when they are made by ILCA to World Sailing” … “World Sailing will process any applications in accordance with the relevant World Sailing Regulations” … “World Sailing has not approved any individual class or manufacturers’ position concerning production and intellectual property rights.”
For the fake Lasers to be Olympic, the International Olympic Committee will also need to ultimately approve the fake Lasers as equipment for the games.
And of course, the Laser class will need to successfully defend its actions in court. There may also be court cases against dealers, against PSA and new builders.
The Laser class asserts that voting yes for the rule change “will make sure that our class remains in the Olympics.”
Obviously, this is just a slogan as there is absolutely no guarantee for that.
Unlike what ILCA claims, there is no guarantee that the fake Lasers will make it at the 2024 Olympics.
The rule change actually opens a gigantic can of worms that may have much more detrimental effects on the Laser class than losing its Olympic status.
The reported lack of action by the trademark owners towards resolving their differences may actually be a direct consequence of the proposed rule change and the substantial commercial opportunities if could in theory generate for one of the key parties to the dispute.
Vote Rigging 4 Fake Lasers
Well before the rule change vote was announced earlier this month, it was well known that there was substantial opposition, particularly in Europe.
For example, The European Laser class EurILCA issued on May 30 a circular titled « Laser Standard and Laser Radial Stay as Olympic Boats, and Now? » The circular calls for keeping the Laser name and rejects a name change to ILCA dinghy.
There was also a petition, that received over 600 signatures, including from famous sailors such as Robert Scheidt, calling for keeping the Laser name and rejecting the changes proposed by ILCA. Actually, the petition was calling for the resignation of ILCA’s leadership.
In short, the ILCA leadership knew very well that there was opposition to their plans.
Yet, not only was the rule change vote launched at the very last minute – on July 1, but some will argue one day too late on July 2 – but it is also presented to sailors in a biased manner skewed in favor of the rule change.
The ballot itself reads that one must vote yes “to secure the future of our class and provide certainty to World Sailing that we can meet their new Olympic Classes requirements.”
Voting yes to the class rule “will make sure that our class remains in the Olympics” asserts ILCA on the ballot.
“To secure the future of our class, please … vote “Yes”
This sloganism in the ballot implies that a no vote would be the end of the Laser at the Olympics and absence of future for the class – nothing less.
The ballot is obviously biased and unfair, and should never have been put forward as such to the membership.
But there is more.
The vote is conducted on an online survey called SurveyMonkey, which is geared at conducting surveys, not at voting, while there are many online professional voting systems out there that should have been used.
The SurveyMonkey ILCA ballot does not allow anonymity in the vote, while this would be preferable, especially given the nature of the vote and the divisions it induced within the membership
And a form must be filled out, but there is no control of the membership status (paid, unpaid) of those voting.
There is no centralized database of the Laser class members worldwide, so on July 31, the Laser class should get in touch with all the districts / national associations and receive instantly the confirmation of the membership status for each of the votes – which is not possible to be done instantly.
So, because the class started the vote so late, there is no reasonable way to expect an accurate count by August 1st.
The Laser class is in fact in gross conflict of interest. In normal democratic elections, there are neutral parties to oversee the voting. Here the vote is conducted by a party to the vote, that has a vested interest in a particular outcome, i.e. a Yes vote.
And there is more. The SurveyMonkey interface allows for those who run the vote to receive instant notification of the votes. Each time there is a vote, it’s possible to receive an alert, and also to access the voting data and statistics.
This means that ILCA, which is a party to the vote, can monitor the vote and adapt its already biased and unfair campaign strategy accordingly.
All these elements concur to one conclusion: the voting process implemented by the Laser class is grossly rigged and undemocratic.
There was no need for that. And it’s a bit of a disgrace, particularly in light of the fact that for many members who are minors, it will be the first time they vote.
To win, the yes requires a two third majority. This may look as a tall order, but with all the bias towards the yes, the fact that most members have no clue about what is going on, the low turnout typically taking place for such vote, and the low key attitude of EurILCA, which recommended to vote No, the Yes may well win.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, it may not change things that much, as without an agreement among the parties, ILCA’s Plan B, with its fake Lasers, is not that realistic after all.
The only proper action by ILCA to remedy this class rule vote masquerade is to withdraw it. That won’t happen of course.
Yet, instead of waiting for the outcome of the vote or trying to further influence it with its recent assault on social media, ILCA may want to redouble its efforts and work much harder, with the help of World Sailing and possibly professional mediators, to reach an agreement among all the parties, including PSA and LaserPerformance.
Because, ultimately, an agreement may be in the interest of everyone.
Who actually wants to see fake Lasers at the 2024 Olympics? Discuss here!