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.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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MICHELE NORRIS, host: This is NPR News.