The force is not with Sumption

Theirs was an epic battle with consequences of galactic proportions.

One day this case could form the basis of its own Hollywood script for it truly was a David and Goliath battle, with English prop designer Andrew Ainsworth taking on Star Wars movie mogul George Lucas.

Today the Supreme Court brought an end to a five-year legal battle between the parties, giving a partial victory to the designer and creating a market for copyright litigation in the London courts.

Lucasfilm has pursued 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.

Both the High Court and Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Ainsworth, who has been represented throughout by SC Andrew partner Seamus Andrew. Hogarth Chambers’ Alistair Wilson QC was instructed as counsel.

Reluctant to give up the fight at the appellate court Lucasfilm fought on and took the case to the Supreme Court. Until this point Wilberforce Chambers’ Michael Bloch QC had led the advocacy (giving his clerks the opportunity to try out a light sabre). However, at the Supreme Court Lucasfilm invoked the force of Brick Court’s Jonathan Sumption QC.

With Sumption on side the claimants piled on the pressure and Lucas’s movie mogul friends Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson, all provided pleas to the court.

According to sources close to the case their joint concern was that, should the court rule against Lucasfilm, movie makers would be reticent to use English-based prop makers for fear of copyright infringement in the US.

The crux of the matter was whether the helmets could be subject to design rights.

This meant that Lucasfilm needed to demonstrate that the helmets sold by Ainsworth were in fact works of sculpture or a work of artistic craftsmanship to show infringement. A sculpture would be protected for the life of the author plus 70 years, so that Lucasfilm could prevent Ainsworth from making replicas.

The High Court, and later the Court of Appeal, found that the three-dimensional helmets and armour from the films were not sculptures. This reduced the copyright protection, broadly speaking, to 15 years from the date when they were first marketed by the operation of statutory defences.

The Supreme Court agreed that the helmets were not sculptures, though it did find that US copyright claims were justifiable in English proceedings.

Huw Evans
Huw Evans

Allen & Overy partner Huw Evans sums up the ruling by stating: “In essence the court held that it was the film which is the artistic work and not the helmet. It follows that full copyright protection for 3D articles in the UK will generally continue to be limited to the fine arts.”

However, Mayer Brown partner Mark Prinsley claims it was a “surprise decision” that will result in a tide of copyright litigation in English courts.

He says: “This judgment means that the English courts can now be used to sort out claims for infringement of copyright in foreign countries simply because the defendant is resident in the UK.”

Whatever it was, it wasn’t an outright win for the giants of Hollywood. Instead, a prop designer from Middlesex took a calculated risk in launching a strike back against Lucasfilms and, effectively, won.