The Final Battle in Star Wars Copyright Dispute

Matt Lonsdale is a JD candidate at Dalhousie University.

Andrew Ainsworth fabricated suits of Imperial Stormtrooper armour for the filming of Star Wars. Decades later, he began selling reproductions to fans. Lucasfilm Limited sued Mr. Ainsworth in a California court for copyright infringement. The case made its way across the world to the UK and is now being appealed by Lucasfilm in the UK’s Supreme Court

In 1976, British designer, Andrew Ainsworth, was commissioned to fabricate several suits of Imperial Stormtrooper armour for the filming of the first Star Wars movie. Decades later, he began selling reproductions of this armour to fans. Unsurprisingly, Lucasfilm Limited was not impressed and sought a judgement against Mr. Ainsworth in a California court for copyright infringement. Mr. Ainsworth did not defend the action, and a default judgement for $20 million was issued against his design studio. Lucasfilm subsequently brought an action against Mr. Ainsworth in the English High Court, seeking an enforcement of the US default judgement, as well as a number of other claims under UK law. The resulting judgement was appealed by both parties, and the subsequent Court of Appeal judgement is now being appealed by Lucasfilm in the UK’s Supreme Court. As the case has made it’s way through the UK courts, the once substantial number of issues has been whittled down to just two.

The central issue in this final appeal, and one which has been discussed previously here on IPOsgoode, concerns the status of the armour under UK copyright law. To succeed in its claim that Mr. Ainsworth infringed their copyright when he created his reproductions, Lucasfilm must show that it owned copyright in the armour itself. This requires establishing that the suits of armour are “sculptures” under UK law and not purely functional items. Judges at both the trial and appeal levels held that the suits were not sculptures and that neither Lucasfilm or Mr. Ainsworth himself held copyright in them.

The second issue in the case has received less attention: the justiciability in English courts of claims of infringement under foreign copyright laws. It is accepted by both parties that the armour would receive protection under US copyright law and that Mr. Ainsworth’s reproductions would therefore constitute an infringement. The judges at the trial and appeal levels differed in their opinions on Lucasfilm’s submission that the court should consider and apply US copyright law directly.

At the trial level, Justice Mann held that such claims could be pursued in the High Court. Mr. Ainsworth had chosen not to submit to the jurisdiction of US courts and the default judgement against him could not be enforced under English law. If Lucasfilm was not permitted to pursue their claim of copyright infringement under US law directly through the High Court then the “consequences of what is said to be a wrong in the US would not be brought home to him in any practical sense”. Justice Mann issued an injunction preventing Mr. Ainsworth from advertising or selling to individuals within the US.

This was overturned by the Court of Appeal, who did not want to see the English courts put in the position of having to decide complex cases involving infringements in multiple jurisdictions with conflicting copyright laws. Lord Justice Jacob wrote “[F]or sound policy reasons the supposed international jurisdiction over copyright infringement claims does not exist”. Justice Mann’s decision not to enforce the US default judgement was upheld.

While the issue of whether Stormtrooper armour is a sculpture may grab more headlines, it is the UK Supreme Court’s decision on the second issue which may have the greater impact on the UK copyright landscape.