Star Wars Copyright Litigation – Supreme Court Rules Against Lucasfilm

The law of copyright has long been an area of uncertainty for many businesses who are often unsure as to whether or not they enjoy exclusive rights to exploit their creative assets or unaware that they may not actually own the copyright and the protection that it affords. Indeed, even the largest of corporate empires like Lucasfilm are not immune from the precarious world of copyright, as a recent ruling in the Supreme Court involving litigated intellectual property rights claimed by the production company behind the Star Wars movies has highlighted.

The law of copyright affords the author of artistic output such as graphics, (including your business and product logos), music and literary works and other artistic craftsmanship an exclusive right to copy and commercially exploit the work immediately upon its creation. No registration of the right is required in the UK. The right only belongs to the author of the work, or an employer if an employee created the work as part of his employment. Just being the person who pays the creative to produce the work is not enough.

In Lucasfilm Limited v Ainsworth the Supreme Court was asked to consider whether Lucasfilm Ltd could claim copyright in the iconic Stormtrooper helmets that first appeared in their film, Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and so prevent the unlicensed sale of these helmets. The defendant, Mr Ainsworth, had been involved in the production of the helmets for the film in the 1970s and since 2004 had begun to sell replicas of the helmets from his website to customers in both the USA and the UK. Though it was accepted that Mr Ainsworth had agreed with Lucasfilm to transfer ownership of all copyrights to the production company, the court was asked to decide whether the helmet props could be considered artistic enough to be a ‘sculpture’ producing copyright protection in the first place.

The court decided that the helmet lacked the necessary qualities to be considered a piece of art and instead remained only an industrial prop used in the production process of the film. Mr Ainsworth was free to market the replica Stormtrooper helmets. The Supreme Court’s judgement marks a disagreement with previous decisions in which wooden models of frisbees and plaster casts used to make toasted sandwich makers were held to be capable of being sculptures for the purposes of copyright.

The above case serves as yet another example of the consequences for a business when unsure both as to what copyright protection it enjoys and the rights of the parties concerned to exploit the designs.

If your business uses any form of creative output, be it products for sale to customers or a design for a product logo, it is important to ensure that all copyrights that may attach themselves to your business have done so, and clarify what rights, if any, the parties involved in the production of the work have to exploit the designs. It is especially important if you have engaged the services of another to create a design or other potentially artistic work that you ensure the copyright the author will be granted in the work is transferred to your business. This applies to websites as much as to any other creative products.

The Court also commented that UK courts might have the authority to preside over the infringement of foreign intellectual property rights that occur in the UK, which could add a further consideration should your business wish to market products in non-EU countries. Mr Ainsworth can claim a win in UK intellectual property law but Lucasfilm already has a US judgment against him for tems of millions of dollars.

Forbes Solicitors can provide specialist intellectual property advice including on copyright issues and our business law team can guide you through the process of obtaining the required protections for your business.

Daniel Milnes

About Daniel Milnes

Dan is a Partner and Head of Contracts & Projects. Dan’s blogs cover the areas in which his specialities lie in commercial, regulatory and governance law which cover a broad range of matters dealing with contracts, projects, corporate and group structures, funding and compliance with a range of legal regimes including data protection. This also involves writing and advising on various forms of commercial contracts including joint ventures, development and construction agreements and intellectual property contracts including IT agreements, sponsorships and other rights licensing arrangements.
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