George Lucas Battles a Stormtrooper (Twice) and Loses (Once)

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Few movies can attract and retain fans the way Star Wars has, so it is no surprise that the movie continues to make headlines more than three decades after its release. This time, George Lucas, the creator of the iconic series, was dealt a blow by Britain’s supreme court over the Stormtrooper costume.

Back in 1976, British prop designer Andrew Ainsworth designed the original Stormtrooper costumes for Star Wars. Years later, he brought out his molds and started producing the Stormtrooper helmets for sale on the Internet. In 2006, he was sued by Lucasfilm in California and lost. The judge ruled that the helmets were the intellectual property of Lucasfilm, protected by U.S. copyright law, and therefore could no longer be sold by Ainsworth. The court also awarded Lucasfilm $20 million.

Despite the ruling, Ainsworth continued to sell the helmets and Lucasfilm again sued him —this time in the United Kingdom. Through three rounds of litigation, the UK courts had to determine whether the helmets were properly considered sculptures or props. The former would mean that the helmets were works of art, which means British copyright law would apply. But the latter would mean that the helmets were utilitarian objects and hence would not qualify for UK copyright protection. (The same would have held true in the U.S., since U.S. copyright law does not protect functional or utilitarian objects either—the difference: the U.S. court found the helmets to be creative—not utilitarian—works.)

This is where it gets interesting for Ainsworth. According to Bloomberg, the UK justices deemed the Stormtrooper helmet “utilitarian in the sense that it was an element in the process of production of the film.” In short: UK law doesn’t consider the helmet to fall within the ambit of copyright protection and the UK supreme court ruled in favor of Ainsworth. Thus, Ainsworth can continue making the Stormtrooper helmets in the UK and selling them to fans in any country—except the U.S. As for the $20 million judgment, the British court system ruled that Ainsworth’s income from the Stormtrooper sales wasn’t “significant enough to make him susceptible to U.S. jurisdiction.”

While copyright protection is specific to the countries where the work was made or the registration received in, it’s a whole new game when infringement happens across borders. Of course, no true “international” (or universal, or even galaxy-wide) copyright exists—so if you’re planning on taking your property overseas or taking legal action against infringers in another country, well…may the force be with you™.