Image reproduced by kind permission of Shepperton Design Studio Ltd.
The High Court has handed down it’s decision in Lucasfilm Ltd and others v Ainsworth and others, the “Star Wars” case. It concerned a dispute about props created for the 1977 film “Star Wars IV – A New Hope”, in particular the iconic white helmet and armour of the Imperial Stormtroopers.
In 1976, the Defendant Andrew Ainsworth, was commissioned by the Claimants to produce the helmet, armour and other items (“the props”). He produced these using vacuum-moulded plastic working from paintings of the characters, drawings and clay models produced by the Claimants.
In 2004, Ainsworth began selling his own replicas, producing these from the original moulds and tools which he had retained. His website contained statements like “made by the original prop-maker from the original moulds”.
The Claimants sued for copyright infringement, passing off and, if the UK copyright claim was unsuccessful, infringement of US copyright.
Mr Justice Mann dismissed the UK copyright claim:
The props were not artistic works. They would have to be sculptures or works of artistic craftsmanship. Regarding sculptures the Judge outlined that although no artistic merit is required, artistic purpose is. He gave an example of some bricks on display at Tate Modern which could be a sculpture. The same pile, left on his drive by workman was not. The props were produced to identify the film characters, they had no artistic purpose.
With artistic craftsmanship whilst the props were acts of craftsmanship they were not artistic. Their purpose was not to appeal as aesthetic but to convey the film characters.
Section 51 CDPA 1988 provided a defence to any copyright in the drawings and paintings as they were design documents for the props.
The Judge dismissed the passing off claim (based partly on the website) as Ainsworth was not seeking to sell his goods by reference to someone else’s goods or goodwill.
The Claimant succeeded on its US copyright claim as Ainsworth’s defence would have been that the items produced were utilitarian/functional items (under US law no infringement). It was accepted the Claimant’s had the better case on this point in reference to US jurisprudence.
Andrew Lee of ACID Accredited Law Firm McDaniel & Co commented “This ruling provides a point of general interest in that it gives guidance as to when a piece of work may be regarded as a sculpture and/or work of artistic craftsmanship. An interesting point was that the Claimants relied on drawings and paintings created in the 1970’s and some contemporaneous diary records. It also indicates the importance of creating and keeping original drawings, ensuring that all entries are dated. In this case the court had to try and piece together a timeline of when drawings were produced as some were undated.”