You can protect your intellectual property through copyright, patents, design registration or trade marks. Each of these gives the owner exclusive right to use or licence the work, product or mark to others.

The type of protection you have or need depends on what you are trying protect. In many situations, it is clear whether you should apply for a design registration or a trade mark, but there are some creations where the line is blurry.

A long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, UK’s Supreme Court asked in LucasFilm Ltd v Ainsworth whether the Stormtrooper helmet that appeared in the first Star Wars movie, Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope, was a sculpture protected by copyright, or design registration.  

Andrew Ainsworth worked with George Lucas to produce the 50 stormtrooper helmets used in the first Star Wars movie in 1977. Over 30 years later, Ainsworth started reproducing the helmets and selling them to the public.

LucasFilm sued Ainsworth, claiming that the reproduction of the stormtrooper helmets constituted a copyright infringement.

Design or Copyright?

If Ainsworth’s production of the helmets were considered copyright infringement, the helmets would then need to be deemed a sculpture protected by copyright. This was complicated because the helmet had both an aesthetic purpose as well as a utilitarian purpose.

Importantly, under UK law, copyright over a sculpture lasts longer than the protection of a design. Ainsworth claimed that the helmet had design protection which had expired, whereas LucasFilm argued that copyright protected the helmet.

LucasFilm put forward that the helmet did not have any utilitarian function, but they were only used to “make a visual impression on the filmgoer”.  However, the opposing argument was that the helmets were created purely for the film and so had a functional purpose, not artistic.

What Did the Supreme Court Decide?

The case went to appeal to the United Kingdom Supreme Court and in July 2011, the UK Supreme Court handed down judgement for Ainsworth. The Court of Appeal found that the helmet was not a sculpture and therefore not protected by copyright.

Even though the helmet did have an artistic effect and was a work of craftsmanship, its purpose was part of the production of the film. People would not ordinarily consider such an item used for the purposes of a movie, a sculpture.

Australian Design Registration and Copyright

Design registration and copyright principles similarly apply in Australia, and it is likely that an Australian court would have reached the same conclusion.

If a three-dimensional object (like a sculpture) loses its copyright protection because it becomes commercialised (as described in the Copyright Act 1968), the only way for the copyright owner to maintain protection over the object is to register a design. Design registration gives the owner an exclusive right to the object’s look and shape.

It is important to know the difference between different types of intellectual property protection and which applies. Design, patents and trade mark protection are all given by registration, whereas copyright is automatic. Individuals and businesses wanting to maintain exclusive control over their creations should consider whether they need to register their intellectual property.

Questions about registering your design or copyright? Get in touch with our intellectual property lawyers. 

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