It is one of those fun stories that gets widely published by the mass media and the tech-oriented blogosphere: the maker of the Star Wars movies threatening to sue the maker of “the world’s most powerful portable laser” because of its supposed resemblance to a Star Wars lightsaber. (For officially licensed Star Wars candy lightsabers, see here. For non-Star Wars candy Lifesavers, see here.)
But not only Star Wars geeks, but also we IP geeks like this kind of story because: 1) Lucasfilm, Ltd. is one of the most successful licensors of all time, earning an estimated $24 billion in revenues from Star Wars licensed merchandise; and 2) there are lots of neat IP angles to the story.
So is Lucasfilm the righteous Luke Skywalker here, just trying to protect what belongs to it, or an evil Darth Vader, trying to intimidate a brave entrepreneur with its legal storm troopers?
First, some background. Hong Kong-based Wicked Lasers recently began selling its $197.97 Pro Arctic Spyder III laser, which it describes as “the most dangerous laser ever created.” With a tubular white grip, it inevitably prompted excited coverage in the blogosphere as, “your own personal lightsaber.” But nowhere on Wicked Lasers’ website or advertising are either Star Wars or lightsabers mentioned.
That was quickly followed by both a Lucasfilm press release and a Lucasfilm attorney cease-and-desist letter to Wicked Lasers, demanding that they stop selling, “a highly dangerous product… that is designed to look like a lightsaber from Star Wars.”
Unfortunately, only portions of Lucasfilm’s cease-and-desist letter were published, so it is impossible to say precisely what legal claims Lucasfilm is making against the Spyder III. But that won’t stop us from speculating:
1) Trademark infringement, for giving the impression that the Spyder III is an official Star Wars lightsaber endorsed by or affiliated with Lucasfilm. The problem with that claim is that all of the lightsaber comparisons are being made by third parties. As mentioned above, Wicked Lasers nowhere mentions Star Wars or light sabers in connection with the Spyder III.
2) Trade dress infringement. Trade dress is elements of product packaging or promotion that the public perceives as a product identifier– think of the appearance of the striated, green glass Coca-Cola bottle or the contour of a Corvette Stingray. The problem with that claim is it is difficult to argue that the handle of the lightsaber is actually part of its packaging, and not a functional part of the product itself. In fact, in Kellogg Co. vs. National Biscuit Co., the US Supreme Court ruled that the pillow shape of shredded wheat cereal was functionally dictated by cost and quality considerations, and therefore, not eligible for trade dress protection.
3) Copyright infringement. Lucasfilm has registered the handle of various lightsaber models as a form of “sculpture” with the US Copyright Office. So if another sculpture were substantially similar to the Star Wars lightsaber handle, it could be copyright infringement. The problem with that claim is that Wicked Lasers could reply that the handle of its laser is not an ornamental “sculpture,” but a functional, utilitarian device not subject to copyright. In fact, a British seller of Star Wars stormtrooper armor prevailed against Lucasfilm in an English court with a similar defense under UK law (below).
So Lucasfilm does not have a slam dunk case here.
But Star Wars is one of the world’s most lucrative licensing franchises, and Lucasfilm has aggressively defended its franchise with legal action.
In 2006, Lucasfilm sued Maryland-based High-Tech Magic for selling light sabers, and obtained a $250,000 settlement. High-Tech Magic had prominently advertised its lightsaber as, “a Star Wars Lightsaber that looks as good as those in the movies.”
Lucasfilm was not so fortunate when it sued the original designer of the Star Wars glossy white storm trooper armor helmets, who had begun selling helmets and body armor from his own website. Lucasfilm won a $20 million default judgment for copyright and trademark infringement against industrial designer Andrew Ainsworth in a Northern California court, but when it attempted to enforce the judgment in the UK, an appellate court ruled in December, 2009 that there was no copyright infringement because the storm trooper armor was not an ornamental, expressive work of art, but rather intended to be a functional, utilitarian object, and therefore not copyrightable as a sculpture. (This ruling surely pleased Star Wars fans, for whom this stuff is REAL.) Under UK law, Ainsworth is eligible to request that Lucasfilm pay his £2.5 million in attorneys fees.
Update, 8/5/10: Wookies of the universe, rejoice! Peace reigns once again in the Star Wars Empire, as Lucasfilm General Counsel David J. Anderman has sent a letter to Wicked Lasers CEO Steve Liu, offering to withdraw his prior cease and desist demand if Wicked posts a disclaimer on all web pages or advertisements related to the Spyder III: “THIS PRODUCT IS NEITHER LICENSED NOR ENDORSED BY LUCASFILM LTD.” Meanwhile, CEO Liu claims that sales of the Spyder III have tripled as a result of the publicity.