I'm going to begin by saying that I Am Not A Patent Lawyer. But to anyone with, let's just say, "functioning eyes," it's easy to see that the Nissan Zeod RC's design looks to be a copy of the original Deltawing. And the original Deltawing team is really, really pissed off about that. Still.
In case you haven't been following this whole mess, this is the second ad revolving around the Deltawing controversy. Nissan supplied the engine, and paid a bunch of money for the naming rights to the original Deltawing back in 2012. The rest of the Deltawing (i.e., the car) was built by Dan Gurney's All American Racers team, financed by Chip Ganassi, and developed by Don Panoz and his crew.
And it was all designed by a guy named Ben Bowlby, as RACER magazine's excellent breakdown points out:
The Delta Wing concept was created by renowned racecar designer Ben Bowlby (BELOW, pic: NISMO) while working for the Ganassi Racing Indy car team, and was originally presented by Ganassi Racing to the IndyCar Series as a potential successor to the ageing Dallara IR03/07 Indy car in 2010. A coupe version was also designed by Bowlby, but the concept pitched to IndyCar involved the open-top option.
With the contract being awarded to Dallara, Ganassi's Delta Wing, LLC offshoot continued into 2011 as he sought new alternative uses for the car. A deal was struck with Panoz, who spearheaded the Delta Wing's shift from open-wheel to sports car racing.
After the 2012 season was all said and done, Nissan decided that they didn't want to run their engine, with their sponsorship, in the Deltawing anymore. So they pulled out of the project. And on the way out, they made sure Ben Bowlby came with them.
And then when Bowlby left, Nissan came out with the ZEOD RC, which looks a whole bunch like the Deltawing. But on the outside, everything seemed good at first, and the ZEOD RC looked like a continuation of the Deltawing. Panoz wasn't making too many noises publicly.
It's a little unclear what went on behind the scenes with Nissan and the Deltawing team, but at some point, blood began to boil. The two teams completely split, with Nissan forging ahead with the ZEOD RC, and the Deltawing continuing on with its original car.
And here's where a big crux of the complaint lies: The Deltawing team said that they owned the intellectual property and the rights to the race car's design. Furthermore, they said that Bowlby was supposed to sign a contract promising that he wouldn't divulge any secrets of the program to other teams, especially if he left.
Bowlby supposedly agreed with the contract, giving reassurances that he'd get around to signing it, all while the Deltawing team had already started paying him for his work. But he never did get around to signing it:
No mention is made within the complaint as to why the Delta Wing group paid Bowlby without a signed employment and non-disclosure agreement in place, but the document does state: Mr. Panoz and others at DWP56 [the Deltawing team] approached Mr. Bowlby on several occasions asking him to execute the Employment Agreement. Mr. Bowlby represented that he agreed with the terms of the Employment Agreement and that he would execute the agreement.
Despite his numerous promises to sign the Employment Agreement, and his verbal ratification of the terms of the agreement, Mr. Bowlby never formally executed the Employment Agreement, and he continued to access DWP56's confidential information while making assurances that he would execute the Employment Agreement.
The Deltawing team feels that they still own the rights to the overall design, and that Bowlby's verbal agreements not to go around designing other Deltawings should be binding. They filed a lawsuit, and started taking out ads in the Tennessean, the local newspaper where Nissan's North American headquarters are based, rhetorically questioning why they would steal the DeltaWing design:
The case had mostly gone quiet since then, as lawyers gathered evidence and depositions, and presumably tried to work out a settlement. But in this new ad, published this week, no punches are pulled. It's accusatory, right from the beginning. "It's Still Our Design," it begins.
Ouch. As Panoz points out, Nissan's only response at the time was that it was going to be fought out in court.
But now, Nissan's taking a different tack. As one of their spokespeople told Automotive News:
"We believe that his claims have no merit," a spokesman wrote. "We will continue to fight his claims in court, but we choose not to address through the media his smears against us. The issues will be resolved in due course."
Saying that the claim has "no merit" is an interesting one. And because this case is so complicated, and appears to hinge not on the design of the car, but on which verbal agreements were binding, and which piece of paper was or was not signed, it can get a whole lot more complicated.