In the digital age, companies are constantly fighting to protect their intellectual property. Last fall’s SOPA/PIPA uproar shows just how desperate copyright holders are to stop piracy. Of course, illegally copying movies or songs is easy; they’re just collections of data. Surely a company that builds something as complicated, and physically substantial, as a car doesn’t have to worry about unauthorized copies. Apparently not: German customs officials recently seized a replica of Mercedes-Benz’s legendary 300SL “Gullwing.”
Officials at Daimler AG, Mercedes’ parent, were not amused. What did they do when German customs handed over the illegal copy? They destroyed it. The replica Gullwing was taken to Mercedes’ “used-parts centre,” where prototype and test vehicles are scrapped. The car was completely disassembled, then the fiberglass body was placed in a press capable of generating 30 tonnes of pressure. According to a Mercedes press release, the press then smashed the body into small pieces. “This dramatic end to the unlawful body was officially documented with a signed and stamped ‘confirmation of scrappage,’” the company said.
According to Daimler, the 300SL’s distinctive shape has been the company’s property from the beginning. “The employees who designed the famous gullwing model in the 1950s granted Daimler AG comprehensive exploitation rights,” the company said, “the body shape has been trademarked by Daimler AG.”
The original 300 SL debuted in 1954 and helped reestablish Mercedes as a maker of performance cars after World War II. To keep the body rigid, it had high, thick sills. This necessitated the trademark “gullwing” doors, which are hinged at the roof to make the door aperture bigger. SL-Class sports cars are still sold today, and the gullwing doors are replicated on the Mercedes SLS AMG coupe.
This may be the first time a car company used a crusher to solve a copyright dispute, but it is not the first time carmakers and car replicators have fought. Carroll Shelby never trademarked his original Cobra design, but he did sue companies for making replicas. Consequently, he lost, and now there are more replica Cobras on the road than real ones. Ford decided to bring back its LeMans-winning GT40 in 2005, but it had to call the new version “GT” because a builder of replicas had already trademarked the name “GT40.”
Daimler, however, remembered to trademark the Gullwing’s design when the car was built, not years later. Still, the Germans’ response seems remarkably aggressive for an industry that doesn’t seem to care much about intellectual property. There are plenty of “Fauxrrari” kit cars, Pontiac Fieros dressed up as Testarossas, driving around, and no one seems to mind.
Nonetheless, companies are entitled to protect their copyrights, and Daimler sent a clear message to anyone thinking about ripping off a classic Mercedes design. It’s just good that these businesspeople work in the car industry, otherwise we might have Hollywood producers smashing computers full of illegal downloads.