George Lucas struck the deal of two centuries when he secured the rights to Star Wars merchandising upon writing the first movie. But he has now tasted defeat in an attempt to claim full ownership of the Stormtrooper helmets.
The case involves British prop designer Andrew Ainsworth who physically made the white helmets used in A New Hope, and now sells replicas online using the original molds.
That led to a seemingly inevitable court case in the UK which made it all the way to the country’s Supreme Court. (For those who didn’t know the UK had such a court, it was set up in 2009, replacing the previous system where the ultimate rulings were made by special judges who were part of the House of Lords.)
The heart of the case, which began in 2008, was whether the helmets are considered sculptures or props. Lucas argues it is the former, meaning they are legally works of art and thus come under English copyright law. Ainsworth argued they are the latter, meaning they can’t be protected.
The Supreme Court upheld the verdict from the original case’s two subsequent appeals, ruling that “The helmet was utilitarian in the sense that it was an element in the process of production of the film.” The ruling now sets a precedent in English law about the copyright treatment of three-dimensional works.
There was a minor comfort for Lucas: the court formally recognized that the helmet design is indeed protected within the United States and barred Ainsworth from exporting the helmets to the US. Ainsworth had already stopped doing this as such sales were already barred by US law.
And if you thought a case of this type would surely wind up with a pun, you’re correct: Ainsworth told the Associated Press that “If there is a Force, then it has been with me these past five years.”