OPINION: Mystic Seaport sued by legendary boatbuilding firm
Mystic Seaport Museum has long celebrated the work of legendary yacht designer Olin Stephens, who died in 2008, feting him on numerous occasions and publishing a book on his remarkable achievements, which include the creation of an astonishing number of America’s Cup winners.
The museum, based on a 1989 agreement with Stephens’ firm, Sparkman & Stephens Inc., became the repository of the company’s extensive collection of drawings and designs, a rich catalogue of the greatest American yachts.
The Sparkman & Stephens Collection has been an important centerpiece of the archives of the museum, which has made the history of American yachting and yacht racing an integral part of the “history of the sea” it tries to tell.
But the relationship between the museum and the new owner of Stephens’ yacht design firm has soured, with Sparkman & Stevens Holding LLC accusing the Seaport in a pending federal lawsuit of breaking the 1989 agreement granting custody of the company’s design records.
The company says the Seaport, in direct violation of the agreement, sold for profit drawings to be used in a rebuild of the famous 57-foot Stephens yacht Gesture, first built in 1947 for Howard Fuller of the Fuller Brush Company.
The 1989 agreement, included as an exhibit with the original complaint of the lawsuit, which is now pending in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, very clearly says the design records can be used for research and publication purposes but not be sold for boatbuilding.
The agreement says the company retained the right to sell the designs for use in building a boat.
The lawsuit, which is heading toward a jury trial, accuses the museum of copyright violations as well as other failures to live up to the terms of the 1989 agreement, including complaints about the way the material has been stored.
I wasn’t able to reach anyone from Sparkman & Stephens, but I see where the company, which has been under new ownership since 2018, is planning a museum of its own in Newport, R.I.
That might explain the company’s demand in the lawsuit to undo the 1989 deal with the Seaport. It may have a plan for those drawings, beyond selling them for boat building.
I was disappointed that the Seaport, which has been under new management for the last few years, wouldn’t put anyone on the phone to talk about the rift with Sparkman & Stephens, partners for so long with the museum.
I left a message for the communications director, whose voice mail message says she will be away from the office for some dates in November.
When I didn’t hear back at all I then tried the office of President Peter Armstrong, but I was told he would be away and wouldn’t be returning the call.
There was a time, which I fear is fading, when the Seaport, an institution that long valued its ties to the community, would not have shied from offering a fulsome explanation of what’s going on.
I did finally get an email from the Seaport’s vice president of business development and marketing, Kevin O’Leary, who said he could not comment beyond saying that the claims are meritless.
I tried emailing back a few questions, but didn’t have any luck getting answers.
My impression, given the involvement of high-profile intellectual property lawyers from some prestigious law firms, is that this is a very expensive lawsuit to prosecute and defend. I can’t imagine how a trial will run up the billable hours meters.
A lot is apparently at stake, beyond the obvious, a rewarding, 30-year partnership.
I am sorry that the Seaport, where there are so many new faces in so many important management roles, doesn’t want to explain its case to the community.
This is the opinion of David Collins