Porsche IPO Docs Reveal It’s Still Fighting Lawsuit Over Who Designed the 911
Porsche’s IPO prospectus revealed the company is still dealing with a lawsuit by the heirs of the designer of the 365, claiming he also penned the 911.
Porsche is gearing up for its initial public offering this month, and you'll find an interesting line in the section on risks in the company's prospectus: "The Group is further currently involved in a copyright dispute in which the heir to one of the designers of the Porsche 356 claims additional compensation for the alleged involvement of such designer in the design of the Porsche 911." While it seems wild that a company that keeps exhaustive, meticulously organized records on its own history would still be arguing in court as to who penned the original 911 some 58 years into the model's life, that's exactly what's happening—and Porsche's records-keeping practices even play a role in the claims.
The case is an ongoing one filed by former Porsche chief designer Erwin Komenda's daughter, Ingrid Steineck, claiming that it was Komenda—not Ferdinand "Butzi" Porsche—who designed the original 911. Komenda started working for Ferdinand Porsche Sr.'s design firm in 1931, helping on the original design of the Volkswagen Beetle (in its earliest KdF-Wagen days) and ultimately being credited as the main designer of the Porsche 356.
Komenda was still employed by Porsche as a designer when the 911 was designed, but the 911's design has historically been credited to Ferdinand Porsche Sr.'s grandson, Butzi. Komenda died shortly after the 911 went on sale, in 1966.
Yet according to Komenda's heirs, it was Komenda who really penned the 911, and they've been busy in recent years trying to prove this theory to the public. The family set up a detailed website with Komenda's sketches, patents and other documents alongside interviews and articles that they claim supports their side of the story. The family has even alleged that Porsche has snipped Komenda out of certain archival photos, even though Komenda features prominently in the company's own publications and exhibits about projects he worked on. In 2014, Komenda's heirs hosted a press conference called "The Porsche Swindle" to further spread the idea that Komenda was the real designer behind the 911, the Schwäbisches Tagblatt reports.
As their claim has popped in and out of headlines over the years—having been rejected in court twice already, as the IPO prospectus points out—it's mostly been received as an interesting conspiracy theory, akin to General Motors being behind John DeLorean's cocaine arrest or former F1 head Bernie Ecclestone participating in the Great Train Robbery. To see it resurface in an official document like an IPO prospectus at such an important moment for Porsche, even in a small way, is certainly intriguing. Turns out, due to procedural reasons the case is still working its way through German courts, and another hearing will be held at some point in the near future.
The Drive reached out to Porsche for comment, but has not received a response at the time of this writing. It's important to note that this is a monetary claim, not a cease-and-desist, so there's no risk of an adverse judgment affecting 911 production. On the admittedly tiny chance Komenda's family is successful in court, it would rewrite a central part of the company's history, however.
Historically, Porsche has maintained that Komenda led a bodywork department at the time that worked parallel to—not with—the design team Butzi had working on the 911, reports the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Butzi's design for the new sports car won out in the long run, giving us the sleek shape we know today. Komenda was a mentor to Butzi in these days, and there's no doubt that the two worked together on various projects, but thus far Steineck has not been able to prove decisively that her father had the original idea or was even a significant co-designer for the 911.
Gathering hard proof is a tad tough for the family now, as the family has apparently been banned from the Porsche archives since an incident in 2001, when the family visited the facility and got into a verbal altercation with staff. Porsche's archives include Komenda's employment contract, which would have terms related to intellectual property and Komenda's salary. The company maintains that any monetary claims to the work Komenda did while employed there were covered by his salary.
The family also alleges on their website that a Porsche archivist and a notary were sent to Erwin Komenda in the Schillerhöhe Clinic in Stuttgart, as the designer was near death. There, Komenda signed an updated will giving the Porsche archives his documents related to his design career, including diaries, photos, sketches and notebooks, which the company wasted little time retrieving from Komenda's homes and offices in Stuttgart and Austria. The family claims that Komenda should not have been allowed to sign anything at that time given his medical condition, and also that his wife should have been there, as this last-minute arrangement with Porsche changed the will he previously created with her.
The 911 Lawsuit
Steineck is seeking compensation for the 911 design under Germany's "bestseller" statute, which guarantees the original creator of a work an extra share of the profit if that work turns out to be more successful than expected, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports. Steineck claims those funds should now go to Komenda's heirs under Austrian inheritance law, as she and the other family members are Austrian nationals. Additionally, she claims that modern 911s should be included in her claims because the original design her father allegedly penned has continuously evolved throughout the years.
Although she limited the claim to only cover 911 sales from 2007 onwards—encompassing the 997 and 991 water-cooled 911 generations at the time of its filing—her claim asks for a 0.25% cut of the proceeds from each car sold in that time period, which per Steineck's figures included some 260,000 911s by 2017. That's no small cut when we're talking about a company with impressively high profit margins per car and modern-era Porsche customers who love to option up each model high above its original MSRP. According to Der Spiegel, her initial lawsuit asked for €20 million in fairness compensation, but she later cut that back to €5 million, per the Stuttgarter Zeitung.
These claims haven't gone well so far. Steineck's claims against Porsche have been rejected in court twice already. While the 911 does have some similarities with the 356 that preceded it, courts determined that there wasn't enough to extend Komenda's design rights to the 911.
These aren't the only intellectual property claims Steineck has filed over Komenda's work with Ferdinand Porsche, either. She lost a case against Volkswagen in 2019 seeking compensation for Volkswagen's use of the original Beetle design in the 2014-and-newer New Beetles, with monetary claims based on the same fairness statute cited in her case against Porsche. Steineck claimed that the New Beetle was clearly based on Komenda's work while he was employed by Porsche, but courts sided with Volkswagen, noting that the original Beetle was very similar to other designs of the period and more of an adaptation of those 1930s designs than an original work.
However, the dispute over who really designed the 911 is getting another hearing in court due to a technicality. The Stuttgart Higher Regional Court that last heard the case neglected to call one of Steineck's witnesses: her husband, who claims that Komenda told him that the 911 was "his car, his design" during a tour of the Porsche company grounds, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports.
The court could have decided not to call Steineck's husband—after all, a decision in Steineck's favor is likely to benefit him financially as a spouse, and that could be seen as a conflict of interest. Yet the court still needed to make some formal decision on his testimony's admissibility, which they did not. As a result, the German Federal Court of Justice ruled in April 2022 that the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court most hold another hearing on the case where some decision as to hearing Steineck's husband as a witness is made.
Notably, the German Court of Justice did uphold the lower court's ruling that Steineck was not entitled to a share of the 911's profits, per the Stuttgarter Zeitung. However, if they determine that Steineck's husband is a credible witness, they would still need to determine how much—if any—of Komenda's work on the 911 is reflected in the recent 911 models the family's claim concerns.
Porsche IPO Plows On
That's how one of the more interesting automotive design disputes—or conspiracy theories, depending on your opinion of it—ended up in Porsche's IPO prospectus. It's a legal challenge to the company's intellectual property claims, and as such, the company deemed it necessary to disclose that as a risk to potential shareholders.
However, it's clear from Porsche's prospectus that the company believes this is an easy win for them. The company did release a statement to the Stuttgarter Zeitung following the ruling in April reiterating its confidence that the courts will rule in its favor.
"Porsche AG still assumes that the judgment of the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court will remain in favor of Porsche," Porsche's statement read. "Irrespective of this, Porsche AG will continue to appropriately acknowledge Erwin Komenda's work for the company."
Komenda is by no means an unspeakable name in the company. His name is all over the 356 section of the museum, as it should be as the 356's designer. Yet even as this pending court case requires disclosure to investors, we're still unlikely to see credit for the 911's design swapped from Butzi to Komenda anytime soon.
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