Designer beats Lucas in Star Wars rights battle

Jul 27, 2011
Sophie Taylor

Brit who created classic stormtrooper helmet wins fight with George Lucas over right to sell replicas

A British prop designer has defeated Star Wars director George Lucas in a legal dispute for the right to sell replicas of the helmets and armour worn by the imperial stormtroopers (above, left) in the 1977 sci-fi film.

Andrew Ainsworth is the man who, as a 27-year-old art school graduate, designed the iconic costume in the first place. Looking for a way to pay school fees in 2002, Ainsworth tells the BBC that he sold a stormtrooper helmet at auction. Along with other memorabilia, it fetched £60,000.

Ainsworth, who had kept the original moulds and could therefore produce the most authentic stormtrooper replicas possible, recognised he was sitting on a goldmine and set up shop.

Back in the Seventies, Ainsworth had sold 50 stormtrooper costumes to Lucas at £20 per helmet and £385 per armour. Today he sells them for £500 and £1,000 respectively.

But in 2004, Lucas's production company Lucasfilm sued Ainsworth for $20m. A US court found in Lucasfilm's favour, but the ruling could not be enforced since Ainsworth is British and his business is based here.

Lucasfilm took its case to a British court, where copyright laws are more complicated. The key legal argument was over whether stormtrooper costumes are sculptures - in which case copyright can be enforced for the life of the author (George Lucas) plus 70 years - or if they are industrial props, on which copyright can only be claimed for 15 years after the item was first marketed.

The case has now been heard at the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court - and the stormtrooper helmets, they agree, is a mere prop. Ainsworth can sell the replicas in Britain - but the court warned that any copyright infringements he made in the US could be enforced here.

Lucas enjoyed the support of fellow big-hitting producers Steven Spielberg, Robert Jackson and James Cameron, all of whom, no doubt, feel threatened by Britain's copyright law.

But Ainsworth's victory could have severe repercussions for the UK film industry. Lucas has warned that Hollywood studios could be put off using British prop makers for fear of a similar situation developing around other big-money franchises.

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