This article is written by Surbhit Shrivastava who is pursuing a Diploma in Intellectual Property, Media, and Entertainment Laws from LawSikho.
Star Wars, the name is enough to put in the reader’s mind a picture of intergalactic battles between alien states, huge spaceships that can jump to hyperspace, and fierce warriors aided by unimaginable technology. And all of this is exactly what Star Wars is about. The people who have seen it (and those who have heard about it) know that Star Wars is a cult classic. The popularity and fan following it enjoys have made it one of the greatest movie franchises in the world, today. One can imagine how popular the franchise is when one can identify a Star Wars character simply by listening to its breathing (Darth Vader, I hear you).
This had started back in 1977 when the first movie from the franchise was released: Star Wars: A New Hope. It introduced people to Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, Stormtroopers, the Jedi, and the Sith among a ton of other things. Out of all the cool stuff, it introduced the people to, one thing that really stuck with the fans was the lightsabers. The lightsabers are the weapons used by the Jedi and Sith, made of Kyber crystals and powerful enough to slice a human being into two parts. The fans loved the lightsabers so much, that a lot of them can identify which saber belongs to whom just by looking at the color and the form of the saber. Apart from looking cool, the lightsabers make different sounds when wielded, retracted and when they are struck against each other. Star Wars is extremely popular for its lightsaber battles, and any fan would kill to watch a lightsaber battle between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan or between Yoda and Darth Sidious in real life.
Whenever something becomes this popular, many people will come forward and take advantage of it and profit off of its unauthorized use, such as by selling lightsaber toys, or producing sounds similar to the lightsaber and using it, etc. The lightsaber has guarded the freedom of many alien systems, but has it been able to protect itself from such unauthorized use? We’ll find out.
Strong with the force: brief about the franchisee
Lucasfilm Ltd. (the original creator of the franchisee, which is now owned by the Walt Disney Co.) registered an overwhelming number of intellectual property arising out of Star Wars. The intellectual property is not limited to just Trademarks and Copyrights but includes Designs and Patents as well. So much for a movie? Think again! The Star Wars universe consists of a plethora of unique elements that are granted intellectual property protection. Before I begin with the specifics, the name ‘STAR WARS’ itself is a trademark. The Star Wars theme is copyrighted. The absolute fan-favorite bad guy theme The Imperial March is also copyrighted.
The designs of droids, astromechs, spaceships, and even the helmets used by the Stormtroopers, the Clone army, and Darth Vader, etc. are registered. Some of these designs are also copyrighted whereas some are not. In Lucasfilm Ltd v. Ainsworth, the thin lines between Industrial Design and Copyright were determined. The case was a dispute concerning the Stormtrooper helmet. The respondent was hired to make Stormtrooper helmets for the first Star Wars movie in the 1970s. Years later, the respondent was reproducing Stormtrooper helmet replicas to be sold to potential buyers which caught the attention of Lucasfilm, and a copyright infringement claim was raised. During the case, the focus switched between infringement of design rights and copyright as there was an issue in determining whether the helmets were considered as merely a prop that is industrially applicable, or a sculpture and hence a work of art that will fall under copyright law. Finally, the UK Court held the case in favor of the respondent and ruled that the Helmet was not a sculpture, thus it was not a work of art and could not be copyrighted. However, other designs such as those of droid C-3PO and R2-D2 are successfully copyrighted and protected.
One of the droids BB-8 even has a patent granted to it. The droid consists of two spheres that revolve independently of each other. There are about 3 Patents registered for the technology that brings BB-8 to life. One Patent is registered as a ‘Magnetic spherical balancing robot drive’ (Patent No. US8269447B2). The robotics and toy making company Sphero Inc. had filed these patents and they have the exclusive authority to manufacture toys using this technology.
Even the character names in the Star Wars universe are trademarked. Trademarks are registered in the US for the names of – Darth Vader, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, Jabba the Hutt, and many more. The popular phrase ‘May the Force be with You’ and its spinoff, ‘May the Fourth be with You’ (May 4 is denoted as Star Wars Day) is also registered. The term ‘Droid’ is also registered as a Trademark by Lucasfilm, and it was enforced against Verizon in 2010. The trademark was for a ‘wireless communication device’ and even though a droid like R2-D2 was simply a movie character, the force was strong with him, which led to a deal between Verizon and Lucasfilm where the former paid an undisclosed amount of sum for using the mark.
Since even the smallest elements in the Star Wars universe have been granted Intellectual Property protection, it is only obvious that one of the most important elements – the lightsaber, is also granted similar protection.
A lightsaber is described as an “energy sword”. It is made up of a handle, that houses various components in it – the most important being the Kyber crystal. The components inside take energy from the crystal and project it, just like a sword.
No matter how much the Star Wars fans want the lightsaber to be real, at the end of the day, it is fictional. Since there is no technology (as of today) to make an actual lightsaber, the real-life lightsabers are simply toys that light up and make the same sounds like a lightsaber. And since actual lightsabers do not exist, there is a huge market for lightsaber toys. Take for example the Sabertrio ‘Neosaber’, which is considered to be one of the most realistic lightsaber toys sold in the world today. Its cost varies from $60 to $150 depending on the customizations. A good lightsaber is a part of any Star Wars items collector.
The term ‘LIGHTSABER’ itself is trademarked by Lucasfilm Ltd (USPTO, No. 2772052). In 2016, a man named Michael Brown was sued by Lucasfilm on the allegations of cybersquatting, unfair competition, and trademark infringement. The respondent was running an academy that went by the name ‘Lightsaber Academy. The academy taught people “the way of the Jedi” and also taught them how to wield a lightsaber and use it in combat. Lucasfilm wrote in the complaint, “Defendants use a logo that is nearly identical, and confusingly similar, to Lucasfilm’s trademark Jedi Order logo… round in shape, with six wing-like shapes curving upward (three per side), and an eight-pointed star featuring elongated top and bottom points stretched into a vertical line.” Lucasfilm also objected to the commercial use of the word ‘Lightsaber’, and demanded US$2 million in compensation from the respondents. As of today, the Lightsaber Academy is still present, but their logo stands changed. However, on the home page of their website, they have openly invited all Star Wars fans to join the Academy, and they are still using the ‘LIGHTSABER’ mark.
Another distinct aspect of lightsabers is the sounds produced by them when wielded, retracted, and swung. These iconic sounds are trademarked by Lucasfilm. The sound is described as the “Sound of an oscillating humming buzz created by combining feedback from a microphone with a projector motor sound” (USPTO, No. 77419246). Since the sound is an important aspect of a lightsaber, the lightsaber toy manufacturers have to take separate permissions for using the name and for the sounds.
Lucasfilm Ltd. has very cleverly trademarked and copyrighted different aspects of a lightsaber, with which they ensure multiple revenue streams coming out from just one element in the whole Star Wars universe. When we analyze the Lightsaber Academy case, we can conclude that even though the Intellectual Property is protected, people nevertheless benefit from unauthorized use. This is especially true in terms of things that have a cult-like status. When something becomes this famous, anything similar to it will benefit hugely in monetary terms because of its fan following. For example, although the term ‘Lightsaber’ is trademarked, the idea of an “energy sword” cannot be trademarked or copyrighted. Hence, over the years, many toys and collectibles that bear resemblance to lightsabers have gained popularity in the market, and the trademark owners cannot do anything about it.
Therefore, we can conclude that lightsabers have the necessary Intellectual Property protection, however, the products that bear resemblance to lightsabers are being freely sold in the market, and on that front, the lightsaber has not been able to protect itself. In the end, however, Lucasfilm and Disney still immensely profit from officially licensed goodies, such as lightsabers, LEGO sets, action figures, apparel, and costumes, etc.
The Star Wars franchise is one of the greatest and most respected movie franchises. It has an innumerable amount of unique elements that have been granted a trademark, copyright, industrial design, and even patent protection. Even the smallest elements, such as character names (Yoda, Obi-Wan, Darth Vader) and character species (Wookies, Evokes, Tusken Raiders) are successfully trademarked and copyrighted by the owners of the franchisee. It is only natural that a lightsaber, which has a significant place in the movies, would be protected. The lightsaber is protected by the provisions of trademark and copyright legislation. The owners of the trademark and copyrights have sued multiple users for infringement and unauthorized use, and they have been largely successful in defending their intellectual property. In most cases, it has been observed that the dispute is resolved amicably since both parties enter into a licensing agreement, which is beneficial to both parties. However, some cases of similar use get passed off, since they are defended on the ground that the idea of an “energy sword” or “laser sword” cannot be protected. Such products have profited immensely from the popularity of lightsabers from the Star Wars universe, and on that front, the lightsabers have failed to protect themselves. However, in the end, Lucasfilm and Disney earn massive amounts of royalties and licensing fees from not just their lightsabers, but all the other trademarks and copyrights as well. We need to believe in the power of IP rights protection for all the elements in Star Wars, for we would not want Vader to choke us and say “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
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