The Law Will Be With Us, Always

With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker officially in cinemas, we have chosen to reminisce by re-reading the landmark UK judgment of LucasFilm Ltd v Ainsworth [2011] UKSC 39, and it’s prequel, Lucasfilm v Ainsworth [2008] EWHC 1878 (Ch). (We thought this might be a little faster than binge-watching 22.5 hours of Star Wars films. Just a little.)

Our minds have turned in particular to the first legal issue dealt with in the case, namely: how the definition of “sculpture” in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 should be interpreted, particularly in respect of three-dimensional objects with both artistic and utilitarian purposes.

This issue related to the distinctive Imperial Stormtrooper helmets used in the film. These were originally produced in three-dimensional form by Mr. Andrew Ainsworth (the Respondent). In 2004, Mr. Ainsworth made copies of the helmets, for sale to the public.

The Appellants, Lucasfilm, who owned copyright in artistic works created for the Star Wars films, argued that the Imperial Stormtrooper helmets were sculptures, or “artistic works” which qualified for protection under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. They claimed that unlike helmets from war movies such as Paths of Glory in which the helmets serve a purpose,

‘Stormtroopers’ helmets and armour did not exist in order to keep their wearers warm or decent or to protect them from injury in an inter-planetary war. Their sole purpose was to make a visual impression on the filmgoer. They are therefore artistic works.’

We pause here a moment to note the surreal hilarity of a barrister in the Supreme Court of England having cause to explain that a Stormtrooper helmet would not protect an actor from injury in an inter-planetary war.

Nonetheless, Justice Mann, and later, on Appeal in 2011, the Supreme Court, found that the helmets did not qualify as sculptures, or by consequence, “artistic works”. Specifically, he found it would be inappropriate to apply the term “sculpture” to an item which would not ordinarily be considered a sculpture, but rather a prop or costume with utilitarian function.

This of course, poses the fascinating question as to whether the “Art Basel Banana” titled “Comedian” by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan would actually constitute a “sculpture” under English Copyright law. We may attempt this analysis some other time. Perhaps during a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie marathon. 

Article Written by Chavah Apfelbaum

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