Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on December 18, 2015. It will be the biggest movie of the year. It will also likely be the most infringed copyrighted work of the year (and 2016, too). It will be the seventh official full-length Star Wars movie to be released in theaters since 1977. Though I recently re-watched the prequels and I would prefer to act as if they did not exist. No matter what revisionist history might try to argue.
Since the original movie, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, George Lucas has not been shy about protecting his intellectual property rights. It is practically a running joke that any reference to Star Wars will expose you to a lawsuit from Lucasfilm or Disney. (The Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm for $4,000,000,000 in October 2012 and immediately announced plans for a new set of Star Wars movies using the same characters and settings.)
To demonstrate just how sincere the creator of the Star Wars universe is about protecting his creation, his characters, the movies, the settings, the concepts and the ancillary names, brands and logos – the following is a summary of the notable issues relating to Star Wars intellectual property.
George Lucas and his team of lawyers have made a concerted effort to trademark almost everything from Star Wars. Lucasfilm has applied for over 1,000 trademark applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. For example, the term “Star Wars Rogue One” already has at least twelve applications for trademark protection in different classes. Everything ranging from uses of the term in movies, theme parks, photographs, sleepwear, swimwear, Halloween costumes, furniture, ornaments, license plates, sunglasses, and more. Yes, furniture. Really. George Lucas is not messing around.
If you think 1,000 trademark applications is a lot, that is nothing compared to the time and effort expended by George Lucas and his employees to register every potential copyrightable aspect of Star Wars. Since 1978, the United States Copyright Office lists 2,688 registered copyrights claimed by Lucasfilm. One of the more recent copyrighted works is a book entitled “Darth Vader and Friends.” I did not even realize that Darth Vader had friends, but George Lucas registered a copyright for such a book nonetheless. Anything George Lucas created that has subsequently been expressed in a book, a song, a video game, a comic book, or any motion picture has likely been registered by Lucasfilm as copyrighted. You are on notice.
Calm down, George Lucas does not own a patent for a lightsaber. Yet. Though he has tried to stop a company that made an actual product that merely resembled a lightsaber. With regard to actual patents acquired by Lucasfilm, most do not directly relate to the Star Wars movies or characters, but George Lucas is listed as an inventor for an ornamental design for a “Toy Figure,” U.S. Patent No. D265,332. That design patent has since expired, so you are free to use it now if you desire. Lucasfilm still appears to claim ownership of 292 patents through the USPTO.
While George Lucas probably wishes he could get a patent on a lightsaber, or a method patent for using the Force, or maybe a patent for the ability to destroy a planet (i.e., the utility of the Death Star), these all appear to be non-patentable today. They are fictional concepts that lack immediate utility under 35 U.S.C. § 101. Maybe in the future there will be technology to support these types of inventions, but I do not want to live in a future where Greedo shoots first.
Not to bury the lede, but you really should not try to infringe on George Lucas’ intellectual property. All joking aside, he really will sue you. You want some examples?
- George Lucas once sued Dr. Dre for copyright infringement. If Dr. Dre cannot escape the reach of the Empire, the rest of us should be very careful not to upset the Emperor.
- George Lucas tried to sue the United States government. The only thing keeping Ronald Reagan from a trademark lawsuit was governmental immunity. Instead, Lucasfilm sued the public relations companies that tried to use the term “Star Wars” as part of the ad campaign to support the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s. Fortunately, Lucasfilm lost that suit as the judge held that “Star Wars” as a term became part of the public lexicon and is able to be used for commentary and criticism.
- George Lucas does not like your porn parodies either. Lucasfilm sued the makers of an anime pornographic parody titled Starballz. Lucasfilm was hit with a countersuit and eventually lost this lawsuit, too.
- Use an Android phone? You will be happy to know that Lucasfilm has registered trademarks for the term “DROID.” Yes, really. Lucasfilm also claims trademark rights specifically for wireless communications devices dating back to 2009. Verizon even agreed to pay Lucasfilm a licensing fee to use the “DROID” term in advertising their phones. It turns out that those were the droids you are looking for.
- Lucasfilm will also use the Jedi Mind Trick on potential competitors. By this point it should not surprise you to know that Lucasfilm claims a trademark in most anything “JEDI” related. Someone did not get the memo, however. A company tried to name itself Jedi Mind and subsequently referenced the Jedi Mind trick to advertise and sell goods and services, primarily headsets using neuro-technology to control actions in computer games through the user’s thoughts. The inevitable cease-and-desist letter was sent in May 2009. A Lucasfilm lawsuit followed shortly thereafter. Not long afterward, the company changed its name Mind Technologies. It also claims to have ceased all uses of the term “Jedi” in its advertising and product names.
According to Yoda, fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. When it comes to intellectual property rights, if he fears that you are infringing on his rights, George Lucas immediately embraces this aspect of the Dark Side and proceeds straight to litigation. Lucasfilm will choke out most any attempts to infringe on the Star Wars names and likenesses. He has no problem making you and your business suffer in court.
Moral of the story? George Lucas finds your lack of faith in his IP rights disturbing.
 I conducted a search through the TESS database on December 3, 2015. The search for “Lucasfilm” as the owner returned exactly 1,007 records of individual trademark applications since 1984. Not all of these address the Star Wars movies, but a substantial majority does cover Star Wars and its characters.
 U.S. Trademark App. No. 86/561,408.
 Search conducted on December 3, 2015 at cocatalog.loc.gov. Search comprised a keyword search for “Lucasfilm” as the claimant of the work.
 Copyright Reg. No. TX0008082088 (2015-05-13).
 Search conducted on December 3, 2015 at patft.uspto.gov. Search comprised a keyword search for “Lucasfilm” under “all fields.”
 A search lists at least eight (8) live trademark registrations for “DROID” and a handful more for expired or abandoned classes whereby “DROID” was the operative mark.
 U.S. Trademark App. No. 77/845,682.
 A simple search shows at least seven (7) registrations for “JEDI” marks by Lucasfilm.