The man who beat George Lucas over 'Star Wars' stormtrooper helmets

The 'stormtrooper' factory
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Story highlights

  • A London industrial designer molded the plastic stormtrooper helmets for "Star Wars"
  • Andrew Ainsworth got the job because a neighbor of his worked with George Lucas
  • Lucas sued him over copyright infringement decades later

London (CNN)As the latest chapter in the "Star Wars" story continues to rake in the money at the box office, a man in the London suburb of Twickenham is rubbing his hands together at last.

His name is Andrew Ainsworth, and he's the industrial designer who crafted the plastic stormtrooper helmets used in the original "Star Wars" film in 1977.
Way back then, no one foresaw that George Lucas' low-budget flick would grow to become one of the most successful film franchises in history.
    "No one believed in him. Most of the film industry said it's another no-hoper," recalls Ainsworth, who took on the job to help prop up his fledgling plastic-molding business.
    He charged Lucas 20 pounds (about $30 at today's exchange rates) for each of the stormtrooper helmets, packed the molds away and forgot about them.
    It was only when he needed money for his children's school fees almost 30 years later that Ainsworth dusted the relics off and began making stormtrooper helmets for fans, who now pay 500 pounds (about $730) apiece.
    Every time a new "Star Wars" film is released, business booms, and "The Force Awakens" is no exception.
    "I think it's probably increased the business by a factor of 10 or 20," he says.
    But up until now, Ainsworth says, he hasn't actually made any money from the growing stormtrooper army he builds.
    All of the profits have been spent on a legal bill he racked up over nine years in an epic fight against Lucas, who took him to three different British courts in a copyright battle.

    Origin story

    Rewind to January 6, 1976.
    Lucas began discussions with his design team about stormtroopers and other "Star Wars" characters. He had a clear idea of what he wanted Darth Vader's soldiers to look like.
    The "Star Wars" stormtrooper molds sat in a London workshop for decades.
    Concept artist Ralph McQuarrie drew up some illustrations, while sculptor Liz Moore and puppeteer Nick Pemberton set about crafting sculptures of the helmet.
    Lucas ultimately chose Pemberton's model, which would become a pivotal point in the legal battle three decades later.
    As the date to start filming in Tunisia fast approached, it was Pemberton who suggested that his neighbor, who made plastic kayaks, cars and fish ponds, could help the studio solve a major problem: how to actually make the helmets and armor.
    "The studios were making things out of plaster" and fabric, Ainsworth says. "They were guessing. They really didn't know what they were doing very well, and so I suppose I was just a very good, easy solution, a one-stop shop."
    Pemberton gave Ainsworth his clay sculpture and the McQuarrie illustrations, and within two days, Lucas was looking at his first white plastic stormtrooper helmet.
    "Nick took it to Lucas as a prototype, and Lucas just said, 'Oh great, give me 50 of them now, in a hurry.' But it was only ever meant to be a prototype," Ainsworth says.
    He went on to make the stormtrooper armor and more than 200 other characters for the original "Star Wars" film in the space of just six weeks, he says.
    "We were very much talking on the same wavelength as far as enthusiasm went," Ainsworth says of his one and only meeting with Lucas, at Elstree Film Studios back in February 1976.
    But that is where the synergy ended.

    Court wars

    Ainsworth began making replicas from his original stormtrooper molds in 2004 and had sold only 19 helmets when he received a legal document from Lucas for copyright infringement.
    At first, he didn't think Lucas was serious, but then a bailiff turned up to collect $20 million that had been awarded to the filmmaker in a U.S. court.
    Ainsworth says he had no choice but to defend himself.
    "Ninety-nine percent of all legal advice said forget it. Big money always wins," says Ainsworth. "But we honestly believed that nobody can stop you being the artist that you are. They can't take it away from you. They can't take your hands off so you can't use them anymore. It was that ridiculous to us."
    The case was fought on the grounds that the stormtrooper was an industrial design, not a piece of sculpture, which would have carried a copyright of 70 years.
    Lucas claimed the stormtrooper was his creation, designed by his team at the studio.
    After nine years defending himself in three British courts, Ainsworth ultimately won, but at the final hurdle in the UK Supreme Court, he wasn't awarded costs.
    He also remains unable to sell his helmets in the lucrative U.S. market, where Lucas maintains copyright.
    He won't say how much his legal bill was, only that it ran into the millions and that the hype around the latest "Star Wars" film has enabled him to finally pay it off.
    "We are now working for ourselves finally," he says.
    "It is worth it now because we are on top of it and we have a product line that we created in the first place, albeit with the help of Ralph McQuarrie and Lucas and everybody else in the industry," he says.
    And he's proud of his role "in something that has become so iconic that I think there is probably more of the public that know what a stormtrooper looks like than the public who know what (Michelangelo's) statue of David looks like."