Stira entrepreneur celebrates victory in copycat legal battle

John Mulligan

Galway entrepreneur Michael Burke, whose company has for years urged homeowners to "Attack that attic with a Stira" has claimed victory in a London High Court battle taken against a UK-based manufacturer that copied his design.

Mr Burke's firm has been manufacturing the Stira attic stairs product since 1983, and employs over 40 people. In 1990, it featured on the 'Late Late Show' with Gay Byrne.

In 2001, Mr Burke was approached by UK-based Irishman Michael Heraghty, who wanted to sell the products in Britain. A deal was struck and Mr Heraghty and his firm, The Loft Stairs Company, began selling the Stira stairway in the UK. However, by 2006, the orders from Mr Heraghty's firm to Stira declined noticeably, and it emerged his firm was constructing its own foldaway attic stairway.

Mr Burke and his firm initiated legal action, claiming the product manufactured by Mr Heraghty's firm had infringed one of its patents.

A lengthy defence based on intricate patent law ensued.

Mr Heraghty and his company claimed that in 1996, the then Trade and Tourism Minster, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, visited the Stira factory and that a photo was taken by a national newspaper of Mr Burke standing beside a new prototype stairs. That stairs would eventually differ from the previous product, in that its width could be adjusted using a new mechanical addition so that the stairs could fit a variety of ceiling openings.

Until then, the stairways were adjusted by simply bending metal arms on the frame -- a solution described by the deputy judge hearing the case as "something of a bodge".

Mr Heraghty's lawyers claimed that the photo published in the newspaper following Mr Kenny's visit to the Galway plant, and Mr Kenny's visit in itself, constituted a voluntary disclosure by the Stira firm of a new process for manufacturing a stairway. However, the judge rejected this defence.

Mr Heraghty's was found to have infringed the patent in all instances except one.

Mr Burke told the Irish Independent yesterday that he welcomed the decision and that he will pursue Mr Heraghty for what ever damages the court awards.