Hogarth silk defeats force of Sumption in Star Wars showdown

The Supreme Court has held that Lucasfilm can enforce a US copyright in the UK but that the stormtrooper helmet the movie giant went to court over was not a sculpture and therefore the defendant did not breach copyright.

Lucasfilm has pursued British engineer Andrew Ainsworth, who produced the stormtrooper helmets and armour for the original 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope film as well as Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing helmet, since 2004.

It was argued that Ainsworth and his business Shepperton Design Studios could not reproduce the helmets as he does not hold the IP rights to the original articles.

Originally Ainsworth was successfully sued by the filmmakers in the US, but with no assets in the US against which the judgment could be enforced the case moved to the UK.

The Supreme Court was asked to decide on two issues: whether a defendant domiciled in England can be sued here for acts in the US that amount to infringement of copyright under US law; and whether the helmets were in fact sculptures.

The court said that the Court of Appeal was right to conclude that the helmet was not a sculpture. Lucasfilm had argued that all the props from director George Lucas’s films should be protected in the same way as sculptures, meaning that for 70 years after the death of the artist no one would have been able to copy them without Lucas’s permission.

Upholding the CoA ruling, Supreme Court president Lord Phillips, who gave the substantive judgment, said: “It would not accord with the normal use of language to apply the term ’sculpture’ to a 20th century military helmet used in the making of a film, whether it was the real thing or a replica made in different material, however great its contribution to the artistic effect of the finished film.

“The argument for applying the term to an imperial stormtrooper helmet is stronger, because of the imagination that went into the concept of the sinister cloned soldiers dressed in uniform white armour.”

Jonathan Sumption QC
Jonathan Sumption QC

At the Supreme Court Lucasfilm instructed Brick Court’s Jonathan Sumption QC to lead the advocacy. Sumption was instructed by Harbottle & Lewis partner Mark Owen to lead the case alongside Wilberforce Chambers heavyweight Michael Bloch QC.

Bloch represented the company at earlier High Court and Court of Appeal hearings and at both stages was defeated by his opponent, Alistair Wilson QC of Hogarth Chambers.

Wilson was instructed by SC Andrew partner Seamus Andrews for the respondent.