Star Wars Stormtrooper… out of copyright?

Copyright law is an odd thing, and it seems it just got a bit more odd here in the UK. Take the iconic Star Wars films, for instance. These are protected under copyright until “70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last principal director, author or composer dies” (reference). George Lucas is still very much with us, so it’s going to be quite some time before they enter the public domain.

But what about the costumes worn by the Stormtroopers in the same films? You would think they are protected to the same degree, but a recent ruling by the UK’s Supreme Court cast a different light on this: Stormtrooper costumes are industrial objects, not works of art, and therefore only subject to a period of fifteen years’ copyright protection. I think the decision stems from the fact that the costumes allow work to be done… admittedly it’s the work of creating a movie, but they’re still just tools of a particular industry.

The reason all this came about is that the prop designer who made the original Stormtrooper armour has been selling replicas cast from the original moulds. Lucasfilm, understandably, saw this as a violation of copyright and began legal proceedings. As copyright law is different in the US, the Supreme Court did rule that Lucasfilm’s copyright has been violated there, but not according the UK law. So, in the UK at least, Stormtrooper costumes are out of copyright and the replicas can legally be sold without Lucasfilm’s permission.

While that will most likely represent a significant loss of income for Lucasfilm, I think it brings benefits to the general consumer… you and I. Once you enter the open market, innovation and price drops soon follow. I’m not quite sure how the Stormtrooper costume can be innovated upon, but you never know.

There’s more

Some cases in point would be Frank L Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or Lewis Carroll’s The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. All of these have entered the public domain after the requisite wait following the death of their authors, and there have been great new works based on all three stories. Tin Man reimagined what the story of Oz was all about, Sherlock on the BBC casts a modern light on the classic Holmes universe, and the there have been recent movie and television re-imaginings of Alice in Wonderland. These all add to the tapestry of material surrounding these stories.

But Stormtroopers?

OK, I’m still not sure how that will apply to Stormtrooper costumes as I’m sure the concept of the Stormtroopers will still be owned by Lucasfilm. But the point I”m trying to make is that when something passes out of copyright protection, it opens the way for people to build upon it and have fun with it. Sure, copyright is still important as it protects people’s rights to work they have carried out and the associated income, but eventually these things pass.

What do you think about this issue? Is it a good thing that the (UK) copyright has expired on Stormtrooper costumes? Will it open the floodgates for unlicensed replica props from other movies or TV shows? Should the Supreme Court have ruled that the costumes are “sculptures” and therefore still under copyright? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Post image used under creative commons. Originally by Andres Rueda.

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