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Star Wars helmets are not art, says judge

A designer did not infringe the Star Wars film franchise's copyright when he sold replica Stormtrooper helmets because copyright law does not apply to them. The designer will face an English court hearing on US copyright law over the sales.04 Aug 2008

Andrew Ainsworth worked on the original helmets for the Star Wars films in the 1970s and now sells replica helmets based on his original moulds. Lucasfilm, the company behind George Lucas's Star Wars franchise, sued Ainsworth in the US and the UK over the sales.

It won a copyright judgment against Ainsworth in the US and sought to enforce it through the UK courts and to conduct a separate case in the UK.

Mr Justice Mann has said, though, that copyright law does not apply to the helmets because they are not artistic works. This means that while Ainsworth cannot be sued under UK law, neither can he rely on the copyrights he claimed in the works.

The court refused to enforce the US judgment against Ainsworth because sales to US buyers did not count as full trading there, and because Ainsworth declared himself not subject to its courts' jurisdiction. Instead an English court must hear the case against him that he breached US copyright laws by selling material to people in the US.

"Mr Ainsworth has committed acts which are said to be an infringement of US copyright. There is a judgment about that in the US which, so far as it goes, and so far as it is useful, will operate there. However, he has chosen not to submit himself to the US jurisdiction, and under present English conflicts rules the US judgment cannot be enforced against him where he currently is," said Mr Justice Mann in his ruling. "If he were to be allowed to say that the US copyright claims cannot be enforced against him here at all, the consequences of what is said to be a wrong in the US would not be brought home to him in any practical sense."

The ruling said that Ainsworth would be right if he claimed that the US courts are a more appropriate place to hear that case, but that he could argue that while at the same time rejecting the authority of the US courts over his business.

Mr Justice Mann addressed part of the US copyright case, leaving part for a future hearing. The US copyright law case was that Ainsworth's helmets infringed copyright in drawings produced by Ralph McQuarrie.

Ainsworth claimed that the three dimensional helmets created from the drawings could not infringe copyright because of an exception in US law for utilitarian or functional items. Mr Justice Mann said that that defence was not available to Ainsworth.

"So far as these English courts are concerned the position is clear enough and it is possible to make a clear finding against Mr Ainsworth on the utilitarianism point; that is to say, that Mr Ainsworth cannot successfully raise a utilitarianism point against the copyright asserted in this claim," he said.

Another hearing would be needed to determine the implications of that finding, but the court said that the question of whether or not the helmets were utilitarian was the only one that needed to be settled, leaving Ainsworth little room to win a case on US copyright law in further hearings.

The court ruled that the helmets were not protected by UK copyright law. Copyright law has various categories of protected items, and to gain that protection the helmets would have to have qualified as sculptures or as general works of artistic craftsmanship (WACs).

Mr Justice Mann said that they were not sculptures because they were made as film props and not as an artistic end in themselves.

He also said that they were not WACs, that they had the characteristics of props, evidenced by three dimensional-looking detailing being painted on to the surface of the helmets. 

"I am prepared to assume that the ultimate production of these articles was an act of craftsmanship," he said. "Mr Ainsworth can fairly be called a craftsman – he produces high quality products and has a justifiable pride in his work. He is not a slavish copier, or a jobbing tradesman. The production of the helmets and armour required the activity of a craftsman to realise the vision of the creators of the film in this respect. However, I do not consider that they are works of artistic craftsmanship."

He said that because the helmets did not fall into one of the categories specified in the law, they were not protected by it.

Mr Justice Mann also said that Ainsworth was not as large a part of the creative process as he claimed, and said that he had a tendency to view events "through his own Ainsworth-tinted spectacles".