The British Empire Strikes Back – Stormtrooper Helmets & IP

stormtrooper helmets
01 Aug 2011

Andrew, the designer of the infamous Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet, has been selling helmet replicas throughout the known galaxy, thereby upsetting Master George Lucas who claims that Andrew is infringing copyright laws. In a court battle of epic proportions, Andrew, wielding his British lightsaber, defeats Lucas and secures the rights to continue selling the helmet everywhere but in the USA. 

The year is 1976. A 27 year old British prop maker by the name of Andrew Ainsworth of Shepperton Design Studios creates one of the whitest and shiniest helmets in the known galaxy. A helmet so wonderfully menacing, it became the pride and joy of the Galactic Empire’s most elite troops. It was the one and only Stormtrooper helmet, and it was a constant reminder of the Emperor’s omnipotence.

Now travel 28 years into the future to the great Google Empire, where an older Andrew Ainsworth launches a website that sells replicas of Stormtrooper helmets. And that is where our saga begins…

Yes, it’s 2004 (and if you got that, you’re pretty good at maths…) A disgruntled George Lucas is suing Mr Ainsworth for 20 million U.S. dollars for copyright infringement under U.S. law, claiming that Design Master Ainsworthikan did not possess the Intellectual Property rights necessary to produce and sell replicas of the iconic helmets. Lucasfilm and an army of lawyers wielding the dark side of the force, argue that the helmets were works of art and are therefore covered by British Copyright law. The U.S. courts succumb to the dark forces, but claim however that they do not have the power to enforce the judgment, as Ainsworth owns no assets in the USA.

And so, the tale zooms to the United Kingdom, where Lord Lucas (worth an estimated 2 billion dollars), drinks tea and battles copyright infringement under the laws of the Queen of England, while simultaneously attempting to enforce the American Judgement in the foreign jurisdiction.

Master Ainsworth and his Jedis, now fighting on home turf, are up for the challenge. Using the highly persuasive Jedi mind trick, they bend the 2 lower Courts to their will, and in 2008 and 2009, the Courts rule that the helmets are functional props, not works of artistic craftsmanship worthy of copyright protection. The Courts refuse to enforce the American judgment.

But evil never rests, and after a shameful defeat at both the lower Courts and the High Court, the battle pursues in the highest Court in all the land – The Supreme Court. Once again, Lucas and his henchmen attack the design aspect of the helmet, stressing emphatically that the props were magnificent sculptures of the highest order, and under UK law, worthy of copyright protection for life, plus 70 years after inevitable death.

A panel of five supreme Judges listen intently, and after careful appraisal, they let Lucas down gently, – “It was the ‘Star Wars’ film that was the work of art that Mr. Lucas and his companies created. The helmet was utilitarian in the sense that it was an element in the process of production of the film.”

The Judges concede however that the rights as per U.S Copyright law have indeed been infringed in the U.S of A, and consequently enforce the foreign U.S judgment and forbid any further sales of the helmets in the United States.

They further rule that as the 3D works in this instance are not considered sculptures, their copyright protection is limited to 15 years from date of marketing, and has therefore long expired.

The Lucasfilm council grumbles that, “an anomaly of British copyright law under which the creative and highly artistic works made for use in films… may not be entitled to copyright protection in the UK”, and add that such protection would have been given in “virtually every other country in the world”. Lucas fears that the repercussions could also pose a “significant threat” to the UK film industry, as film makers would be discouraged from employing UK prop makers for fear of copyright infringement.

Ainsworth, upon being questioned about his heroic victory, responded, “I am proud to report that in the English legal system David can prevail against Goliath, if his cause is right. If there is a Force, then it has been with me these past five years.”

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)

Dean Raviv is an attorney, entrepreneur, and the co-founder of GoLegal. When he's not writing contracts, he's contemplating living barefoot on a beach in Costa Rica.


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