Some of the most iconic props to come from Hollywood apparently may not have copyright protection in Britain, and, George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, is not having it. After a British appellate court determined that the legendary Stormtrooper helmet from Star Wars lacked copyright protection in that country, Lucas has taken the battle to Britain’s highest court.
The dispute arose when Lucasfilm claimed that Andrew Ainsworth infringed on its copyrights by making and selling Stormtrooper helmets and body armour. He originally was hired on the set of the Star Wars movies to make storm trooper helmets and armor using story boards and clay models created for the film. In 2004, he made more helmets, without permission, and sold them to fans going to conventions and Star Wars events. Lucas sued him successfully in the United States, claiming copyright infringement. But when Lucas urged an appellate court in Britain to enforce the U.S. judgment for $20 million, Lord Justice Jacob observed: “That sum sounds strange to English ears given that [Ainsworth] only sold about $US14,500 worth” of helmets.
The British court was equally nonresponsive to Lucas’ copyright infringement claim. After reviewing copyright legislation and cases, the Lord Justices determined that the Stormtrooper helmet is not a “sculpture” or a “work of artistic craftmanship”, under the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act of 1988, so as to give it British copyright protection. The justices found the helmet to possess artistic merit but found its primary function utilitarian — it was a worn piece of equipment and unworthy of British copyright protection.
The appellate judgment sent sufficient shivers throughout Hollywood that Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Jon Landau and Peter Jackson, have backed Lucas in his appeal to Britain’s highest court, with Lord of the Rings helmsman Jackson saying of the latest ruling: “The UK’s long-standing reputation as a creative hub and a centre for film production is significantly threatened. To assert a film’s props and visuals are not the product of an artistic endeavour and therefore not worthy of copyright protection is ridiculous. This short-sighted and ill-informed ruling will do incalculable damage. No other country in the world takes such a position.”