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The warning shot fired by two companies the Dunedin-raised Sir Russell leads — Oracle Racing and F50 League LLC which trades as SailGP — has ramifications for how the upcoming Prada Cup and the America’s Cup is broadcast.
A legal notice alleging copyright infringement during pre-Christmas racing over graphics used in what is known as the LiveLine system of augmented reality broadcasting was sent to Dunedin company Animation Research Limited (ARL) and two other parties on December 23.
In a response to questions from The New Zealand Herald, Sir Russell said: "We are simply seeking to safeguard IP [intellectual property] that we invested millions of dollars to develop over the last decade.
"We prefer not to be forced to protect our rights via legal processes, but as with all copyrighted material, it must be licensed for use by commercial entities.
"We have requested that the current America’s Cup organisers either avoid infringement by revising their graphics, or pay an appropriate licence fee."
Sir Ian claims the two Coutts-led companies are asserting copyright based on imagery ARL created in 1992 and used in every America’s Cup since then — including in 1995 when Coutts famously made "the America’s Cup, New Zealand’s Cup".
"We have delivered those graphics for events where he has also raced against New Zealand, starting with him taking the cup away from New Zealand with Alinghi (Switzerland) in 2003 and then winning it off Alinghi for BMW Oracle (USA) in 2010," Sir Ian said.
It is understood Oracle Racing and Sail GP believe intellectual property associated with the Animation Research graphics was transferred to the events’ organisers at prior America’s Cup regattas.
Oracle Racing and SailGP are at the centre of a rival hi-tech sailing series, spearheaded by billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison and Sir Russell, the most successful helmsman in America’s Cup history.
Sir Ian confirmed he wrote to Coutts on December 7 last year detailing the technology Animation Research had been contracted to provide for broadcasting the 36th America’s Cup.
Sir Ian said he approached Sir Russell late last year offering to share new technology ARL had developed. He said he did not hear back until shortly before the first pre-Christmas regatta began, in which Sir Russell advised he had some concerns about ARL’s plans, but did not share what those concerns were.
"The next we heard from him was a legal letter that arrived on December 23rd, just as we closed for Christmas, with a deadline of January 5th for our response.
"It would be fair to say it threw our plans into a bit of chaos."
Earlier on, the challenger of record initiated talks with Sir Russell , inquiring about acquiring a licence to use the Liveline system in the coming America’s Cup match series.
That was ultimately declined by the challenger.
The Sir Russell-led companies have said that if Animation Research wished to continue to use what they claim are copied images they were willing to discuss suitable licence terms.
Sir Ian acknowledged the LiveLine graphics were a significant step forward.
Sir Ian claimed what Sir Russell was creating was based entirely on the look of ARL’s Virtual Eye 3-D graphics that had been universally acknowledged as finally making sense of sailing.
"We were really chuffed that was the case because it was another step forward in telling the story of the America’s Cup."
Sir Ian said for the 36th America’s Cup, ARL adapted its own augmented reality graphics package that it used on other sports, including golf and cricket, to bring that technology to sailing as well.
"Technology has advanced significantly since 2017 in Bermuda."
Sir Ian said the upshot of the threatened action was that ARL would now bring forward ideas it was planning to launch around the America’s Cup defence and apply them to the Prada Cup, which begins later this week in Auckland.
"It has meant having to bring some of the team in from their holidays but there was no way we wanted this Kiwi showcase out on the Waitemata to be compromised in any way," Sir Ian said.
"My genuine wish is that we can put this behind us and do something together that benefits this sport that Russell has contributed so much to."
Sir Ian and the two other parties sent a lengthy response to Oracle Racing and SailGP late on Friday after the original January 5 deadline was extended, but at this stage the matter has not been resolved.
What Sir Russell Coutts' companies claim
LiveLine is a system of augmented reality in race coverage, involving the use of course graphics overlaid on live footage of racing action on the water, supplemented by real time data acquired from various sources including sensors on boats.
The system is protected under a US patent and the Coutts-led companies have asserted copyright over an associated graphics package which has key elements: An outer course boundary border; the ability to display written material within the border; a ladder or grid and numbers placed under parallel lines to reflect the direction and distance of boats to the next mark.
Sir Ian Taylor's response
The Coutts-led companies are claiming copyright to three elements that we use in our Virtual Eye graphics package.
The first is an enclosed border, basically the field of play set by the rules, the second is a grid of parallel lines showing where the boats are in relation to each other and the marker buoys, and finally sponsorship names lying on the water.
We have been doing most of this since 1992 and have done so in every America's Cup since then.
Because of this threat we have had to bring our staff in off holiday to implement a new package that was going to be used for The Match [the America's Cup defence], but we will now introduce it for the Prada Cup instead so that the fans are not disadvantaged in any way by this action.