TWG Tea co-founder loses tussle over domain name and false statements

TWG Tea co-founder and former chief executive officer Manoj Murjani had registered the domain name under his own name in 2007.
TWG Tea co-founder and former chief executive officer Manoj Murjani had registered the domain name under his own name in 2007.PHOTO: TWG TEA

SINGAPORE - The co-founder and former chief executive officer of luxury tea brand TWG Tea has been ordered by the High Court to hand over the Internet domain name to the company.

In a written judgment released on Friday (May 3), Judicial Commissioner Audrey Lim said the evidence showed that Mr Manoj Murjani, who registered the domain under his own name in 2007, was holding it on trust for TWG Tea.

In an internal e-mail in 2009, he referred to "our domain" and in 2010, he signed a letter declaring that the domain name would "always remain" the property of the company.

TWG Tea was ordered to bear the costs of the transfer and to reimburse Mr Murjani for the fees he had paid.

The company, represented by Mr Tony Yeo, had sued Mr Murjani in 2017 over the ownership of the domain name, arguing that he was holding the domain name on trust for the company.

Mr Murjani, represented by Ms Koh Swee Yen, had countered that he owned the domain name, which was registered before TWG Tea was set up.

He sought compensation from the company for using the domain name as well as damages for being excluded from mention as a co-founder.

However, the court dismissed the countersuit brought by Mr Murjani against TWG Tea, current CEO Taha Bouqdib and Mr Bouqdib's wife Maranda Barnes.

This was in relation to seven statements, on the company's website and in various articles, in which the Bouqdibs and others were referred to as founders, without any mention of Mr Murjani.

The judge said that the founders of TWG Tea were in fact Mr Murjani and the Bouqdibs but "unambiguous" meanings of three of the offending statements - those on the website and in two magazines - did give the false impression that Mr Murjani did not play a role.

In one article, the Bouqdibs categorically portrayed themselves as having come together to set up TWG Tea, noted the judge.

This was done to "place themselves front and centre in the founding of TWG Tea", she said, to reflect the couple's work in building the brand.

The judge said: "They should not have glossed over Manoj in the way they had and excluded him from TWG Tea's history."

But ultimately she rejected Mr Murjani's claim of malicious falsehood, saying that there was no evidence that the statements were calculated to cause damage to him and there was no evidence that he had suffered any damage.

TWG Tea started as a subsidiary of Mr Murjani's company, The Wellness Group.

Mr Bouqdib, who was in the tea business, and his wife, were persuaded by Mr Murjani in 2007 to move from France to Singapore to build the TWG Tea brand.

On Aug 3, 2007, Mr Murjani registered during a meeting to discuss the venture.

In 2011, lifestyle products company Osim International bought an initial 35 per cent stake in TWG Tea and eventually became the majority shareholder.

Mr Murjani resigned as CEO and director of TWG Tea in 2012, amid disagreements with Osim's top management.

He and The Wellness Group started lawsuits against Osim and others, but the claims were dismissed in 2016.