Star Wars copyright battle hits the Supreme Court

This week could finally see the concluding episode of one of George Lucas' longer running off-screen battles as his copyright infringement action over Stormtrooper helmets gets heard by the Supreme Court.

The prop designer - Andrew Ainsworth - who had built the original props for the original Star Wars film in 1977 - had produced some replicas and sold these. George Lucas got all upset and claimed that Ainsworth did not have or own the right to produce and sell the replicas and was infringing copyright in the original drawings of the helmets.

Protracted legal action through the High Court and Appeal Court ended up with a finding in favour of Ainsworth. Lucas, not giving up the fight, appealed to the Supreme Court which earlier this week heard argument from his counsel, Jonathan Sumption QC that it had been an "impled term" of Ainsworth's working agreement back in the 1970's that he would not acquire any right to copyright in the models he made.

What's the issue
Mediabeak thinks that implied terms are a legal construct to help lawyers who have forgotten to include something relevant in a contract. If a term is as fundamental as is being argued in this case then it ought to have been a contractually defined term.

What is being argued is that the 2d drawing (which is in itself copyright protected) from which Ainsworth produced the 3d Stormtrooper helmet transfers to the 3d artefact such that the 3d artefact is similarly copyright protected. Not so. Under UK copyright law the creation of a 3d representation of the 2d image would constitute a new 'work' that attracts its own copyright protection. A 3d representation of a 2d image is not an infringement of the original work nor is it an adaptation in the same format - rather it is a translation into a different format which attracts its own copyright. Just as an architectural drawing is copyright protected but will not cover the final construction as a 3d object.

So this is more a matter of contract law rather than copyright law which is why Jonathan Sumption is seeking to advance the 'impled term' argument.

If Lucas and the studios had wanted to exercise such wide-ranging controls over all Star Wars related artefacts and merchandise then they should have provided for this contractually. Copyright law exists to protect individual artistic creations not suppress them or derivatives of them for purely commercial as opposed to artistic reasons.

The modest amounts Ainsworth may be making be exploiting his own artistic creations are minute in relation to the overall Star Wars licensing and royalties revenue streams.

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