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'Star Wars' Costume Maker Battles George Lucas Over Rights to Stormtroopers

By Saturday evening the humdrum office of a firm of London solicitors could have been mistaken for a distant outpost of the Galactic Empire.

Between the desks were the white suits and helmets that are known to "Star Wars" aficionados the world over as the uniform of the Imperial Stormtrooper.

The lawyers working late that night were preparing to do battle with the opposing legal armies of George Lucas, the creator of the "Star Wars" films, over who owns the copyright on the stormtrooper uniforms, the headgear of the imperial fighter pilots and the helmet designed for Luke Skywalker as he led the final assault on the Death Star in the first film of the original trilogy.

Lucas’s business empire claims that it owns all the rights to the uniforms, while the lawyers at SimmonsCooperAndrew will argue that the rights are in fact vested in an obscure prop designer from Twickenham, England, who made the first helmets and suits for the 1977 film.

On Tuesday morning, the opposing sides as well as the assorted stormtrooper suits and helmets will arrive in the Chancery Division of the High Court.

The case, reported Monday in The Lawyer magazine, could have wide-reaching implications for the multibillion-dollar business of film merchandising.

The back-story to this extraordinary episode requires an opening scene narrative all of its own.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away — or at least as far away as America and as long ago as 1976, in the neighborhood of a constellation of stars known as Los Angeles — a young Lucas was looking for a designer to build the uniforms for his latest low-budget science fiction space adventure film.

He recruited Ralph McQuarrie to draft pictures envisioning the uniforms of the terrifying army of a ruthless Galactic Empire. He wanted them to wear “spooky white space armor”. He then cast around for a designer to create them and the job fell to Ainsworth.

Describing the arrangement in 2005, Ainsworth said: “An artist friend of mine who Lucas had found took the opportunity to say he could do them (molds) and what he really meant was, ‘I know a man that can do them’. I’m the man, so I created them for him. The first 50 helmets I sold to him for £35 [$69.50] each.”

The first film gained a huge following and spawned a colossal merchandising operation that, according to Lucas’s legal team, has brought in $12 billion in “worldwide retail sales of licensed products since 1977."

For his part, Ainsworth remained a designer and engineer and would later create a face-sucking monster for the "Alien" films. In 2004, however, he discovered one of the original helmets he had made in a cupboard in his home in Twickenham.

After successfully selling it to a collector, he began to manufacture the outfits once more, through his company, Shepperton Design Studios. He found a legion of "Star Wars" fans willing to pay up to $3,574 for a suit and helmet. Lucasfilm responded in 2006 by suing Ainsworth. A judge in California awarded the firm $20 million in damages for copyright infringement, unfair competition and trademark infringement. It has now brought the case to Britain to ensure that this decision is enforced here.

Lawyers for Lucasfilm will argue that there was an implied contract to produce the uniforms, which were in any case based on artwork which it provided. Lawyers for Ainsworth will argue that the copyright has expired, because the uniforms were pieces of industrial design rather than works of art. The case is expected to last 10 days.