LONDON (Reuters) - A judge in a wig and gown gazed down on a Stormtrooper costume and nine masks from the "Star Wars" films at London's High Court on Tuesday at the start of a high-profile copyright case.
George Lucas, creator of the blockbuster intergalactic sagas, and his billion-dollar merchandising arm are suing Andrew Ainsworth, a small-scale prop designer who sells replicas of the film characters from his southwest London studio.
Lucasfilm and related parties have already won a 2006 court case against Ainsworth in California, where the judge awarded the firm $20 million (10.1 million pounds) in damages, and they are now seeking to have a similar ruling enforced here.
According to a short summary of the case provided by Ainsworth's lawyers, he argues that the copyright on the items in the courtroom has expired, and even if it has not, that he owns it, and not Lucas.
"Hence the defendants are counterclaiming in respect of unauthorized making and issue, distribution and sale of toys and costumes which are copies of the disputed items."
Michael Bloch, lawyer for Lucasfilm Ltd, opened proceedings by arguing that the design for the Stormtroopers and other key characters from the films were well advanced by the time Ainsworth was asked to produce the costumes in 1976.
"By the time Mr. Ainsworth was brought in to make the Stormtrooper helmet, the look to be created had been worked on by a large number of people for perhaps more than a year," he said.
The designs "were pretty well fixed in 1975 and they involve the initial idea of George Lucas worked on then by Ralph McQuarrie and others." McQuarrie was the conceptual artist and design consultant for the original "Star Wars" trilogy.
At stake are the rights to merchandise worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Total merchandising revenue since the first Star Wars movie in 1977 is estimated at around $12 billion, and total box office takings from the six movies is about $4 billion.
As well as the full Stormtrooper costume, masks of characters including a TIE fighter pilot and Tusken Raider were arranged on the front bench of the court room.
Ainsworth sells his replicas of the Stormtrooper helmet and armour, as well the masks for an array of other key characters, from Shepperton Design Studios.
The full set of armour normally retails at 995 pounds ($2,000), although the company does not supply U.S. customers.
Lucas' side is expected to argue that Ainsworth was working for the studio under an implied contract, whereas the prop designer counters that "no written contract was entered into and Andrew Ainsworth was not employed by Lucasfilm."
There may also be legal debate over whether the uniforms were industrial design or works of art, which could affect the length of copyright protection.
The case, expected to last for 10 days, continues.