If there's one thing Lucasfilm has always been known for, it's creating some of the most iconic stories, characters, and properties in the history of pop culture.
If there's something else the Star Wars engine has always been known for, it's lawsuits.
Once Star Wars became a cultural phenomenon and everyone wanted a piece, cease-and-desist letters and writs spewed forth from the company's Marin County offices like squadrons of TIE Fighters from Death Star launch bays. But one lawsuit the company leveled made it all the way to the United Kingdom Supreme Court.
English prop designer, sculptor, and industrial designer Andrew Ainsworth, now 70, only took on movie work to subsidize his main business in industrial design. "If you commit to the film business you've got to play that game and get compromised and used up by production companies," he told SYFY WIRE. "It's a nasty business."
Nasty? What exactly happened?
It started one day in 1975, when Ainsworth's friend and colleague Nick Pemberton, an artist from a few doors down, came to see Ainsworth in his workshop in Twickenham, a suburb of London. Pemberton had been approached by a guy who needed futuristic helmets for a space movie and had done a clay mock-up of the helmet, which he'd presented to a young director named George Lucas at London's Elstree studios.
The production designer working on the movie, John Barry, admitted to Pemberton that they'd started their own design work on the armor for the futuristic fascist army troops, but were at a loss as to how they were going to actually make it.
Pemberton told Barry he knew just the man, and when Barry asked Ainsworth to take over manufacturing, no contract or agreement about cost was made.
"We didn't charge them anything," Ainsworth says. "We did it as a punt to see if there was any work in the film business. We just sold them the helmets at £20 each [about $25]."
The studio's effort was abandoned and Ainsworth sculpted around 40 molds that made up the armor, which he vacuum formed in white ABS plastic. The various moldings were then chemically welded together to create the finished suits suitable for action shots.
With filming scheduled to start in Tunisia soon after for scenes set on a desert planet populated by farmers, scum, and villainy, Ainsworth hurriedly made and shipped a few dozen sets of the armor he and Pemberton had worked on, and the rest is movie (and merchandising) history.
Fast forward almost three decades, when Ainsworth and his partner found various finished helmets and props from the film at the back of a storage shelf at his company, Shepperton Design Studios. He'd long since left the film business, but with Revenge of the Sith coming, Star Wars fever was running high again, and he figured he owned a piece of history many would happily buy.
"My partner called [renowned British auction house] Christie's to see if they were worth anything. They came around in about half an hour!" Ainsworth laughs. He'd kept all the original molds and documentation, more for record-keeping than future business opportunities, but when the helmets fetched around $76,000 at Christies' Christmas auction the laughter stopped.
Ainsworth went on to work on Alien (facehugger body molds), Superman (the Fortress of Solitude set crystals ), Flash Gordon (Prince Vultan's costume and the Hawkmen helmets), and Kull the Conqueror (the Beast Warrior costumes), but he suddenly realized there might be a premium market for stormtrooper helmets. And unlike third-world knockoffs, he had the original molds. After making 56 for the film, marking new ones with the subsequent production numbers might make them collector's items with endless geek cred.
They flew off the metaphorical shelves, Ainsworth realized a new revenue stream, and then the bombshell dropped. "The head licensing man at Lucas — not a nice man actually — rang up and said, 'Who the hell are you?' I said, 'I'm the bloke who made all this stuff for you.' I sent him copies of the documentation and suggested they use me for a bit of marketing, saying we should go into business together. Instead, they sent me a writ."
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Lucasfilm sued Ainsworth in California to force him not just to stop producing the helmets — the designs of which it considered company intellectual property — but to claim $20 million in damages.
Hurriedly hiring a lawyer and, feeling a little like a rebel X-Wing gliding into the Death Star trench, Ainsworth's first step was to try and get the jurisdiction changed to the U.K. because he'd been advised that U.S. copyright law wouldn't fly at home.
A court in Hollywood threw out the request to relocate the suit, and Ainsworth had no choice but to stop selling stormtrooper armor in the U.S., where most of his market had been thanks to rabid fan interest, conventions, etc.
But Lucasfilm wasn't done. It tried to enforce the lawsuit in the U.K. to stop Ainsworth selling altogether and pony up the $20 million. Almost every lawyer he approached passed, not wanting to go up against a company as powerful and deep-pocketed as the one that owned Star Wars. As one told him, "You'll go to court and get law, not justice."
He even approached John Mollo, the late costume designer who worked not just on A New Hope but Barry Lyndon, Zulu Dawn, Alien, Gandhi, Chaplin, Event Horizon, and many more, and with whom Ainsworth had enjoyed a great relationship during Star Wars' pre-production.
Mollo knew full well how Fox artists Liz Moore and Brian Muir had worked on designs in-house that were subsequently abandoned when Ainsworth solved the design and manufacturing problems around the helmets, but when he asked Mollo to act as a witness on his behalf, someone at Lucasfilm had got to him first.
"Lucas asked Mollo to be a witness for him," Ainsworth remembers Mollo saying. "He was retired by then and relied on them for his income because of all the conventions and signings and things. Lucas told him it would never get to court anyway but [when it did] he ended up being tremendously compromised and extremely embarrassed at what he had to say."
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
The case went to court in 2008 and luck (as well as British law) was on Ainsworth's side. He was protected by a clause in the U.K. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 called Section 51, which states, "It is not an infringement of any copyright in a design document or model recording or embodying a design for anything other than an artistic work or a typeface to make an article to the design or to copy an article made to the design."
In other words, because he'd had produced a number of the helmets for the production rather than simply a single specific design, U.K. law considered them industrial parts with "utilitarian purpose" rather than works of art, which attract the kind of copyright and IP protection Lucasfilm was trying to impose (if you're interested in the ruling, you can read it here).
Whether the helmets were a work of art or spare parts, the other matter Lucasfilm wanted to be settled was that Ainsworth wasn't subject to American-held copyright outside the U.S.
When the case was heard again in 2009 after Lucasfilm appealed, the ruling of the appeal judges — that the California court had no jurisdiction over Ainsworth's work and income in the U.K. — represented a much bigger threat than some guy selling unlicensed stormtrooper gear. If U.S. copyright infringement claims weren't allowed to be brought against plaintiffs in England, the company wouldn't be able to enforce them anywhere. Might manufacturers everywhere start making their own lightsabers or Jawa masks after scouring contracts for Section 51 loopholes?
The other ace Ainsworth had up his sleeve was a legal tenet called "passing off," which deals with the generation of creative work. If you or I start selling Star Wars or Avatar T-shirts, we're infringing on the copyright over an existing work. But Ainsworth made the stormtrooper helmets before the film existed, meaning the film was actually passing off on his work rather than the other way around.
Unlike most of the lawsuits Lucasfilm has leveled at artists, business owners, and producers the world over, their gunning for Andrew Ainsworth and his stormtrooper armor business offers a few unique takeaways.
First, it's about the myriad artists and makers who contribute to moviemaking and give a human face to that nebulous term "collaboration." The reality is that a director doesn't often sculpt, light, construct, or program anything; he or she simply shepherds a creative vision and chooses the best people to execute it. Think of today's big-name VFX vendors who are as responsible for the creative aesthetic in many modern blockbusters as any director.
Sadly, it's also about the downward pressure on livable wages imposed by studios and production companies in the era of obsessive cost-cutting. In an age of one billion-dollar blockbuster after another, you'd think the guy who designed the stormtrooper helmet would be swimming in loot. But as Ainsworth himself says about the reason he got out of movie props, "there's no money in it."
"You're at the wrong end of the food chain," he says. "It only worked for us because we found someone like John Mollo who's inside the system to make sure we got paid. Most [lesser known] actors and prop makers end up just doing it for nothing. By the time the film's been made, the company that was formed to make it has been liquidated and disappeared."
And today, while the stormtrooper armor business is still thriving, Ainsworth was left with costs worth almost $7 million from fighting off the original lawsuit. He has no regrets, but he says it's put retirement off for a while longer than he intended.
... and yes, thanks to John Mollo, Lucasfilm did pay the original bill about six months later.