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Designer Wins Right To Sell 'Star Wars' Stormtrooper Outfits In The U.K.

Originally published on July 29, 2011 9:45 am

Freshly pressed stormtrooper outfits, just like the ones worn in the original 1977 Star Wars film, are still legally for sale in Great Britain after the country's Supreme Court ruled that the south London industrial designer who originally made them could keep on making them.

As Vicki Barker reports on All Things Considered tonight, Andrew Ainsworth beat back a challenge from Lucasfilm that started brewing about seven years ago when the entertainment company got wind of the fact that he hadn't stopped making stormtrooper getups after his work on the film ended.

Lucasfilm won a $20 million suit against Ainsworth in the United States. British courts, however ruled that his work was functional and not artistic, meaning it fell under less lengthy copyright laws in Britain.

So Ainsworth is free to sell the outfits, the BBC pegs their cost as up to 1,800 British pounds, in his homeland. He is not, however able to sell them in the United States and can't visit the States without plumping for the $20 million that U.S. courts say he owes Lucasfilm.

The BBC quotes Ainsworth after the U.K. court ruling: "This is a massive victory, a total victory, we've already got the champagne out."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Britain's Supreme Court dealt a blow this week to filmmaker George Lucas' merchandising empire. It ruled that he cannot seek damages there against the man who produced the first stormtrooper costumes for the "Star Wars" films.

As Vicki Barker reports from London, British designer Andrew Ainsworth has been selling "Star Wars" fans exact replicas of the costumes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

VICKI BARKER: In his workshop on the village green in Twickenham, South London, Andrew Ainsworth fires up two machines attached to a big, white box.

ANDREW AINSWORTH: Molds them there. Heat a sheet of plastic up, pull the mold up into it, and suck the air out. The atmospheric pressure pushes the molten plastic around the mold.

BARKER: In seconds, a sheet of white plastic inside morphs into one of the stormtrooper helmets from the early "Star Wars" films. For years, the costumes have been a profitable sideline for the industrial designer, who also makes kayaks and other sporting goods - a pleasant reminder of those months in the 1970s, when he produced the first prototypes on spec for a then little-known, cash-strapped American filmmaker named George Lucas.

And then about seven years ago, Lucas' production company got wind of his work and telephoned. Ainsworth says he saw a business opportunity.

AINSWORTH: And I said, you know, we made this stuff for you and 30 years ago, and you made a good film, very successful. Why don't we make the stuff again and you market it. You're the - you know, you're Lucas, you've got the network. Well, they didn't reply. They just sent me a writ.

BARKER: Lucasfilm won a $20 million judgment for copyright infringement in a U.S. court. But in Britain, the rights for an industrially produced item can expire in as little as three years. So Lucas argued the costumes were sculptures and therefore, covered by artistic copyright, which lasts far longer. Lucas lost.

Copyright lawyer Robin Fry explains why.

ROBIN FRY: I think the distinction here is that the judges were looking at this legislation, which goes back in some cases 200 or 300 years, and just couldn't bring themselves to say that the helmets worn by the stormtroopers in the first series of the "Star Wars" films were actually sculptures. And they needed to say that in order to bring it within the ambit of copyright protection.

BARKER: The judges did rule that U.S. law applies to any costumes Ainsworth exports into the U.S., effectively banning him from selling them there.

In a written statement, Lucasfilm expressed satisfaction with that part of the verdict and added: Lucasfilm remains committed to aggressively protecting its intellectual property rights relating to "Star Wars" in the U.K. and around the globe, through any and all means available to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

BARKER: Ironically, Ainsworth funded his legal battle by making and selling even more stormtrooper uniforms.

AINSWORTH: And so we've been making the empire's troops to fight the empire. That's what you call "The Empire Strikes Back," really, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARKER: But if Ainsworth ever sets foot on U.S. soil, that $20 million judgment would still apply.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG, "STAR WARS)

MICHELE NORRIS, host: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.