Star Wars ruling means UK companies could see the dark side of international copyright law

In essence, the Star Wars case saw Lucasfilm challenge UK prop designer, Andrew Ainsworth’s right to make and sell the stormtrooper helmets the which he had originally created as an art school graduate in the 1970s.
Previous to the most recent case which was heard by the Supreme Court in London, Lucasfilm had already secured a ruling against Mr Ainsworth for infringing US copyright laws.
Rob Lucas of Shulmans explained: “The US ruling meant Mr Ainsworth could no longer sell his helmets in the US and was ordered to pay $20 million compensation but as Andrew doesn’t have any assets in the US and the majority of his sales were in the UK, the ruling had limited practical use.
“The next stage of the legal battle saw Lucasfilm ask the Supreme Court in London to consider two issues – firstly whether Mr Ainsworth had infringed UK copyright laws and secondly whether the UK court would accept it had jurisdiction to rule in cases where a UK citizen was thought to have infringed the copyright laws in another country.”
In the event the court ruled that Mr Ainsworth hadn’t infringed UK copyright laws, but did accept that it could rule on UK citizens’ overseas activities.
Rob explained:  “The court found that Mr Ainsworth hadn’t infringed UK laws so is consequently free to carry on selling his helmets in the UK.  This part of the decision hinged on the fact that the court judged the helmets to be industrial props, which enjoyed just 15 years copyright protection, rather than sculptures as Lucasfilm had argued, which are protected for far longer.
 “So far so simple, but it is the second issue that is crucial for other UK manufacturers.  As the domestic courts have now accepted jurisdiction over UK companies which are thought to have infringed copyright laws abroad, it is vital that British businesses have a clear picture of the copyright laws in countries they are exporting to. It is these laws, rather than UK laws, that any subsequent cases will be heard under.
“Another factor businesses need to consider is the possibility of a UK Court hearing alleged infringements in several countries as a single case. For example, if Mr Ainsworth had sold his helmets in Canada as well as America, the UK Supreme Court could judge whether Mr Ainsworth had infringed Canadian law and American law at a single hearing. This in itself makes it far easier and cheaper for overseas companies to sue UK manufacturers.”
In Mr Ainsworth’s case, the practical implication of the ruling is to open the way for Lucasfilm to bring another case against Mr Ainsworth which would be held in English courts but, for the parts of Mr Ainsworth’s business activities taking place in the US, under US law. Since US copyright laws are generally more far reaching than UK laws, the court could well find that Mr Ainsworth breached US, but not UK laws.
Rob continued: “In this scenario, the vital difference as far as Mr Ainsworth  is concerned is that unlike the US court’s judgment which had little practical effect, a judgment by a UK court would have a real impact as Mr Ainsworth’s assets are in the UK.
“From this case it’s clear to see that intellectual property is a complex area of law which can have far reaching consequences for many UK businesses. It’s vital that those who are trading overseas, or considering expanding their horizons, to take professional legal advice.”