George Lucas’s penchant for enforcing his intellectual property rights with an iron fist is legendary throughout the galaxy—and why should any Star Wars fan begrudge him his right to what’s his? He self-funded a significant amount of the early project, he paid a hefty fine for standing up for his artistic integrity and opening the movie with the scrolling exposition we all know and love rather than credits—and he created a lush, populated galaxy in which our imaginations can run wild. And, all of that aside, let’s face it: the law is, more often than not, inarguably on his side.
For example, I’m sure you’ve seen the Motorola Droid commercials and noticed the fine print at the bottom: “DROID is a trademark of Lucasfilm, Ltd. and its related companies. Used under license.” I don’t know how much that license cost Motorola, but let’s just say Han would probably have needed to trade in his ride to pay for it. Then there was that little Star Wars marathon Lucas shut down for copyright infringement earlier this month. (You can argue all you want that anyone who’s going to sit through 13 hours of science fiction probably has already parted with their fair share of cash throughout the years so what’s the big deal already—but copyright law emphatically does not care about your opinion about George Lucas’s personal finances.) The man knows what he’s doing.
A long time ago, in a studio far away, a man named Andrew Ainsworth created a prototype for a Stormtrooper helmet, instantly setting the tone for the Death Star scenes and changing Star Wars forever. According to copyright law, Lucasfilm was the rightful owner of that intellectual property and would remain so under US law for long enough for the point to be moot.
So when Ainsworth started selling replicas of the Stormtrooper helmets in the United States and in the UK, George Lucas felt a disturbance in the force and took what seemed to be appropriate action, and the US court agreed that Ainsworth was infringing on Lucasfilm’s copyright by selling the helmets in the country.
However, as the BBC reports, Ainsworth had no assets in the United States, and so Lucas pursued him to the UK. Then, through a shocking turn of events, the tables were turned: George Lucas revealed himself to be Ainsworth’s father.
OK, that’s not what happened. I got carried away, I’m sorry. What really happened: Ainsworth’s legal team made the argument that the helmets were in fact industrial designs—not sculptures, as they were originally registered—and the courts agreed with him. Under UK copyright law, that reduces the term of copyright protection to 15 years after publication. And since the original movie was published in 1977, this recent ruling puts the Stormtrooper design firmly in the public domain.
Lucasfilm may have lost this battle, but don’t hold your breath—because of the good decisions George Lucas made in the seventies back when he believed in his project when no one else did, they’re going to continue to win the war. And if more people showed some foresight and made sure all their ducks were in a row from the beginning of the project, courts might have an easier time of untangling he-said-she-said infringement suits. We should all be more like George Lucas.
So let’s all stop slamming Lucas for taking what’s rightfully his—we owe the man a huge debt of gratitude for his contribution to cinematic history, his innovative camera techniques and puppetry paved the way for an entire genre, and his creation continues to inspire and touch each new generation (and I think we can all agree that his generous permission for Seth MacFarlane to do Blue Harvest and the rest makes him 100% totally and completely AWESOME). Let’s give the man a hand.
Come on. It’s not like I’m asking you to forgive him for Jar-Jar or anything.