Star Wars helmet designer strikes back against movie empire

British prop artist Andrew Ainsworth free to sell replica helmets, court rules, but now open to US copyright claims

Star Wars may have been a cinematic blockbuster, but its costumes were never high art – a view now confirmed by the supreme court, which has ruled that an imperial stormtrooper's helmet from the movie is not a piece of "sculpture".

The decision opens the way for Andrew Ainsworth, an English prop designer, to carry on selling outfits for up to £1,800 each to customers in Britain but it exposes him – and other UK manufacturers – for the first time to claims of infringement of foreign copyrights in British courts.

Not being a work of art means that any enforceable UK design right in the helmets expired after 15 years.

Ainsworth, who helped make outfits for the first movie in 1977, welcomed the ruling that the headgear was not a sculpture and that he could therefore carry on selling them to domestic customers. He said: "I am delighted to have won the right to continue to make these replicas from the original tools and moulds. I am proud to report that in the English legal system David can prevail against Goliath if his cause is right. If there is a force, then it has been with me these past five years."

Lucasfilm, the American producers, have been trying to prevent him selling replica helmets from his studio in Twickenham, south-west London. A California court has already ruled in favour of the director, George Lucas, who was awarded £10m in damages.

In its judgment, the supreme court wrestled with movie history. "The Star Wars films are set in an imaginary science fiction world," the judgment noted.

The supreme court judges concluded: "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."

The ruling that infringements of foreign copyrights can be pursued through British courts, may, however, eventually prove far more significant for future commercial and intellectual property rights cases.

It will have little personal affect on Ainsworth since relatively few helmets had been sold to US customers.

His lawyer, Seamus Andrew, acknowledged that there "will now have to be an assessment of the damages arising from this" but did not anticipate they would be very much.

In its judgment, the supreme court said there was "no reason for the English courts refusing to take jurisdiction over an English defendant in a claim for breach of foreign copyright".

The implications of this decision are likely to be felt in the film and TV industries and far beyond, according to Danielle Amor, a copyright lawyer at the firm Hogan Lovells.

"As a result of this judgment, the UK may well be a more tempting place to take legal action," she said.

"It will now be possible to sue in the UK for infringement of copyright and other unregistered rights which occurred in a number of different countries provided the defendant is resident in the UK.

"The more interesting part of the decision is the acceptance of jurisdiction over foreign copyright infringement claims.

"This is a welcome clarification of the extent of the court's jurisdiction and the reasoning could well be applied to other claims relating to foreign unregistered intellectual property rights."

Lucasfilm welcomed the supreme court decision that Ainsworth's replicas infringed the company's US copyrights and that those rights are enforceable in the UK with respect to activities outside of the UK.

"This is the first time the supreme court has ruled on an issue of great commercial and legal importance, namely the jurisdiction of the courts in the UK over infringements taking place abroad," a company statement said.

"The judgment is an important step in modernising UK law and bringing it into line with the EU.

"Lucasfilm remains committed to aggressively protecting its intellectual property rights relating to Star Wars in the UK and around the globe through any and all means available to it, including copyright, trademark, design patents and other protections afforded by law."


Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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