Rights to Star Wars

After the massive success of the first Star Wars, 20th Century Fox ceded the merchandizing rights to George Lucas in an effort to retain the distribution rights to Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The initial deal with 20th Century Fox bargained away Lucas’ compensation for distribution rights to the eight envisioned Star Wars sequels. Today, however, the monetary value of Lucas’ merchandising rights is vastly greater than 20th Century’s distribution rights.  Star Wars licensed toys netted around $3 billion last year.

The newest movie, Star Wars: the Force Awakens, released last December, is the highest grossing film in history.  In the run up to the release, eager fans were greeted with a vast collection of licensed Star Wars merchandise.  These included soup cans, a lightsaber barbeque tong, a “May the Force Be With You” mascara, and Star Wars branded fruits and vegetables.

One of the most recognizable Star Wars accessories is the Storm Troop helmet.  Go to any Comic-Con, sci-fi convention, or video game conference and you will see someone in a storm trooper costume.  The original Star Wars creative team, Ralph McQuarrie, Liz Moore, and Nick Pemberton designed the iconic helmet.  Pemberton suggested the helmets be made of plastic and asked his UK neighbor, Andrew Ainsworth, the owner of a plastic manufacturer, to create them for the film.  Ainsworth went on to create 200 of the original costumes for Star Wars: A New Hope.

Seeing the publicity around the Star Wars prequel films, Ainsworth began to take orders to create the iconic helmets.  After manufacturing 19 helmets, Ainsworth was served a cease and desist letter from Lucas to stop production.

In the United States the helmets are protected as sculptures or pictorial works.  The copyright act grants protection within the pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works category for all non-utilitarian aspects of those works. It is relatively settled law within the US that costume masks are protectable; courts have ruled that such masks derive no utility beyond the creative enjoyment of the mask image or sculpture.

Back in the UK, Ainsworth ignored the letter and was eventually served with a default judgment of $20 million.  Ainsworth countered claiming the helmets were not copyrightable subject matter.  The UK courts eventually sided with Ainsworth, finding the helmets were created in the process of production of the Star Wars film, and were not artistic works because they lacked the necessary artistic purpose.  Without an artistic purpose the helmet could not be sculptures under UK law, and therefore fell out of protection long ago. Ainsworth is currently allowed to produce as many of his helmets for his UK cliental as he wants.

The United States recognizes the helmet as a copyrighted sculpture and hence they are protected until 2071. And, assuming United States copyright rules apply in a galaxy far far away, the helmets would undoubtedly be protected in the real Star Wars universe too. To this day, as evidenced by the complete ease with which storm troopers are killed, no one has figured out what utility that storm troopers armor actual serves.

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