Film icon George Lucas has lost his copyright infringement case in Britain’s highest court, the BBC reports. The defendant in the case was Andrew Ainsworth, one of Lucas’ former prop designers who runs a small business in Britain selling replica Stormtrooper helmets and body armor. Because he created the original plastic prototype that Lucas used for the movies, Ainsworth’s gear is authentic – and die-hard fans had taken notice, paying around $720 for a helmet and around $1,430 for armor.
Lucas noticed as well and filed suit in 2004, seeking $20 million and asserting that Ainsworth lacked legal rights for his goods. U.S. courts agreed. But because Ainsworth lives and operates his business in Britain and the courts there declined to enforce the U.S. actions against him, Lucas’ legal team launched an action in British courts. To succeed under that country’s law, they switched strategies, as this blog noted in an earlier post, and focused on whether the gear were sculptures — and therefore works of art, meriting intellectual property protections — or merely industrial props.
Britain’s highest court, ultimately, agreed with findings in two lower courts, ruling the helmet and armor were industrial props, not sculptures and works of art. Justices pointed out “the helmet was utilitarian, in the sense that it was an element in the process of production of the film.”
The ruling presents an interesting dilemma for prop-makers in Britain in the future, as Hollywood talent may shy away from them, based on this ruling. Lucas, after all, won all-star support for his argument from fellow directors Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. On the other hand, the ruling also can be seen as a triumph of a small business fighting an industry Goliath like Lucas.
The case also gained importance because it resolved whether “UK courts can decide if non-UK copyrights have been infringed.” The ruling clarifies that parties cannot avoid lawsuits from U.S. copyright holders merely because they live and do business in Britain.