Film is art, props are not: Designer wins UK legal fight with Lucasfilm over Stormtrooper helmets

Not all bad guys wear black hats. That was the lesson an entire generation learned from the white uniform and helmeted Stormtroopers introduced in 1977’s sci-fi epic Star Wars. Now it appears the designer of the iconic helmet isn’t a bad guy either, at least, not according to the Supreme Court in Great Britain.

Stormtrooper at Phoenix Comic Con 2011

Britain’s Supreme Court upheld the decision of two lower courts, ruling that “…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.” Accordingly Andrew Ainsworth, whose vacuum molding skills helped create the iconic look, was not violating copyright laws in the United Kingdom when he created, using the original models and tools, or sold replicas of the helmets to fans and collectors. In other words, Ainsworth can continue to make and sell the replicas, at least within the U.K., without Lucas’ permission or a licensing agreement with Lucasfilm.

Although the Supreme Court of Britain found that the replicas did not violate British copyright laws, the Court did agree with the ruling of California courts that replica uniforms made by Ainsworth did violate U.S. copyright laws. Further, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. copyright laws were enforceable within the U.K. with respect to activities occurring beyond Britain’s borders. Ainsworth maintains that while he sells the replicas online, he does not sell in the States.

Lucasfilm, the organization who virtually pioneered movie merchandising, was understandably disappointed by the split ruling, issuing the following statement:

“Today, the U.K. Supreme Court issued a split ruling in the copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Lucasfilm involving the Stormtrooper costumes from Star Wars. The Court agreed that Mr. Aisworth’s replica costumes infringed on Lucasfilm’s U.S. copyrights, and ruled that those rights are enforceable in the U.K. with respect ti activities outside the U.K. This is the first time the Supreme Court has Ruled on an issue of great commercial an legal importance, namely the jurisdiction of the courts in the U.K. over infringements taking place abroad. The judgement is an important step in modernizing U.K. law and bringing it into line with the E.U.

“The decision unfortunately also maintains an anomaly of British copyright law under which the creative and highly artistic works made for use in films — which are protected by the copyright laws of virtually every other country in the world — may not be entitled to copyright protection in the U.K. Lucasfilm remains committed to aggressively protecting its intellectual property right relating to Star Wars in the U.K. and around the globe through any and all means available to it, including copyright, trademark, design patents and other protections to three dimensionalartistic works.”

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