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Copyright Wars: Stormtrooper battle played out at Supreme Court
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a Twickenham prop designer embarked on a mission to defend himself from Star Wars director George Lucas’s mighty empire.
The battle between Andrew Ainsworth and Lucas has raged for light years – but this week the final episode was played out at the highest court in the land.
In a real life sci-fi battle, Ainsworth is fighting Lucas’s empire for the right to sell replicas of the stormtrooper headgear he designed.
But Lucasfilm claims it owns the copyright to one of the most iconic helmets in history.
Joanna Kilvington reports:
“The stormtroopers are fighting back against their master.”
That was Andrew Ainsworth’s verdict on his epic legal battle with Star Wars creator George Lucas, who is demanding $20m (£13.3m) in a row over who owns the copyright to the infamous white helmet.
Prop designer Mr Ainsworth this week faced the final episode in his fight against the Lucasfilm empire, as he appeared at the Supreme Court to argue he had done no wrong in selling replicas of the headgear he designed from his Twickenham Green studio.
Five law lords will decide if a 2006 American court ruling – that found Mr Ainsworth guilty of copyright infringement, unfair competition and trademark infringement in re-using the original mould to reproduce and sell the masks – still stood in the UK.
If the ruling goes against him the father-of-two faces financial ruin. But Mr Ainsworth was hoping the Force was with him ahead of the final judgement and likened himself to Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker, who “would not have stood for this”.
He said: “The stormtroopers are now fighting their master. I designed and made this [stormtrooper helmet]. I made it for my own development as an industrial designer.”
Mr Ainsworth is hoping for a triumphant end to mirror the finale of the original Star Wars trilogy, after the High Court and the Court of Appeal agreed the costume had a “utilitarian purpose” and was an industrial prop rather than a “work of art” – and so not covered by British copyright laws.
In court, his solicitor Alistair Wilson QC said: “If you have a costume or a dress, however beautiful a dress or costume, it is not a sculpture.”
In bizarre scenes one of the law lords tried on the helmet, and Mr Wilson explained it would not be up to much as a real space suit, not least because the black eye coverings meant the actors inside could not see anything.
Mr Wilson was also probed on how the helmet compared with other iconic costumes, such as the Tin Man and the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. He replied that the Tin Man costume could be seen as a sculpture as it was an original outfit but the Scarecrow – like that of the uniform of the stormtrooper – was a take on an already existing, functional item – the scarecrow.
Mr Ainsworth designed the stormtrooper helmet in 1976 for the first Star Wars film, released in 1977.
He created it from 2D drawings while working at Shepperton Design Studios.
He began selling them in 2004 from his studio in Twickenham, charging about £500 for helmets made from the original cast.
But five years ago the American courts ruled against him and ordered a massive payout, leaving Mr Ainsworth with no choice but to take on the galactic movie empire.
He said: “I was told never go to court on a principal – but I have got belief in the case.”
He was able to find legal help through friend and fellow Twickenham resident inventor Trevor Baylis.
The case will make history if judges allow the US ruling to stand. The decision is expected in six weeks.
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