LONDON — The Empire has struck out.
Britain’s Supreme Court on Wednesday defeated a bid by George Lucas’ company to stop a prop designer from making and selling replicas of the iconic storm trooper helmets from the “Star Wars” films.
The court did, however, prevent him from selling the helmets in the United States.
Andrew Ainsworth sculpted the white helmets worn by the sinister galactic warriors in the original “Star Wars” film in 1977, and now sells replica costumes, made from the original molds, on the Internet. Lucasfilm Ltd. has been trying for years to stop him, a battle that has climbed through the British courts.
Lucasfilm’s attorneys argued that the storm trooper suits are sculptures and therefore works of art covered by British copyright law. Two lower courts ruled in 2008 and 2009 that the costumes were props, not artwork, and thus covered by a much shorter copyright period that has now expired.
The country’s highest court on Wednesday upheld those decisions.
“It was the ‘Star Wars’ film that was the work of art that Mr. Lucas and his companies created,” the panel of five judges said. “The helmet was utilitarian in the sense that it was an element in the process of production of the film.”
But the judges agreed with Lucasfilm’s attorneys - and a lower court - that Mr. Ainsworth had violated Mr. Lucas’ copyright in the United States by selling costumes there.
Mr. Ainsworth’s attorney, Seamus Andrew, said that means the designer may have to pay damages to Lucasfilm for the U.S. sales, but they are likely to be minor because he did not sell much merchandise there. The judges said Mr. Ainsworth had sold between $8,000 and $30,000 worth of goods in the U.S.
Mr. Andrew said that on the broader issue, “our client won, without a doubt.”
He said the Supreme Court had been asked: “Could our client continue to manufacture and sell replica helmets and suits of armor without any form of license from George Lucas? And he can.”
Mr. Ainsworth, 62, said he was delighted.
“I am proud to report that, in the English legal system, David can prevail against Goliath if his cause is right,” he said. “If there is a Force, then it has been with me these past five years.”
Lucasfilm said that “unfortunately [the court upheld 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.”
While the Supreme Court justices may know their law, the ruling reveals gaps in their knowledge of science fiction. The judgment said the “Star Wars” movies are set “in an imaginary, science-fiction world of the future.”
Film fans know that they take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
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