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Entrepreneurs Panel

Michael Oliver
Laura Tenison
Julie Meyer
Debbie Pierce
Steve Purdham
Charlie Mullins
David Pollock
Tony Caldeira
Richard O'Sullivan
Brian Hay
Jeremy Roberts
Jennie Johnson

Andrew Ainsworth

For ladies and gents (well, let's face it, mostly gents) of a certain vintage, the work of Andrew Ainsworth is both cosily familiar and capable of inspiring awe-struck intakes of breath.

If you're talking modern design classics, there can be few items more recognisable to anyone born in the last 40-odd years than the Imperial Stormtroopers of the original (and, to this correspondent’s mind, only) Star Wars trilogy.

Yes, the grunts of the Galactic Empire were a hapless bunch who fell for the old Jedi mind tricks and couldn't even shoot straight most of the time. But boy did they look cool.

For that you can thank Ainsworth, who made the original helmets and recently battled the might of George Lucas’s empire all the way to the highest court in the land – and won.

Back in 1976 Ainsworth had recently graduated from industrial design college and set himself up in business in Twickenham using his own plastic moulding machinery to "punch out kayaks and rowing stuff, things like that".

He created what would become the Stromtrooper helmet as a bit of a punt after a friend working at Shepperton Studios asked him to make something because the studios “just made things in plaster and hessian” and didn’t know how to use modern plastics.

In a couple of days he had sculpted moulds and developed a method for producing the character.

The friend took the prototype to George Lucas, who immediately ordered 50 outfits.

"There was no contract or anything like that," Ainsworth adds.

His Shepperton Design Studios went on to make around 200 pieces for 13 different characters in the film, including Luke Skywalker’s X-wing pilot’s helmet.

"I sold the Stormtrooper helmets for about £20 a helmet. It was 1976, it wasn't bad. But I never sold any rights for the manufacture of it," Ainsworth says.

"What I should have done at the time is obviously registered it as a design and a method of manufacture but I didn't; that's what we do in England, we don’t do things properly!"

But for the next 30 years or so it didn't seem to matter. Ainsworth did more prop work for films like Superman and Flash Gordon (including thousands of Hawkmen characters).

Then, after five years in the film world, along came computer-aided design and it was curtains for handmade props.

Ainsworth moved on and built up a successful industrial design business making water sports gear, bats for baseball and cricket and safety helmets. Over the years, he tried to sell the odd Star Wars piece but "no one was really interested".

By the 2000s, however, the generation of kids who had spent their youth arguing over who was going to be Han Solo in the playground had grown up and were more than willing to open their wallets for a genuine slice of a galaxy far, far away.

"We put a couple of old helmets that were on top of the wardrobe in an auction at Christie's," says Ainsworth.

"They fetched about £60,000 and the phone didn't stop ringing so at that point I realised that the memorabilia business had kicked in as the modern-day antiques, if you like."

He dug out the original moulds for his creations and started making more helmets for the American market. After selling about 19, George Lucas, perhaps sensing a disturbance in the Force, got wind of what was happening and realised they were the genuine article.

"He didn't like it," says Ainsworth. "He wouldn't work with me, as I offered, so he just sued me and got a judgement against me for $20 million by default, undefended, in America."

As Ainsworth had no assets in the States, the battle came to the UK. For five years, he played Rebel Alliance to Lucasfilm's Galactic Empire, refusing to back down despite seemingly overwhelming odds. And he didn't have to rely on a bunch of overgrown teddy bears to win, either.

He went toe-to-toe with Lucas through the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Lucasfilm argued the helmets were sculptures and therefore subject to copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years.

In July, the highest court in the land ruled they were not and, as a result, the copyright had expired. It awarded Ainsworth the manufacturing and marketing rights for the products across the world, with the exception of the USA.

"We’ve won everything we need to," he says.

So what now? Well, venture capitalists take note, Ainsworth is looking to sell a percentage of his company to recoup his legal costs – currently approaching £4 million, he tells EN – and expand the product range.

There'll be more film memorabilia, as well as "real" products based on the Star Wars gear, including the tantalising prospect of an X-wing pilot's helmet manufactured to full European safety standards.

"The market for this worldwide as a cycle, BMX or even motorcycle helmet would be most attractive," he says.

Indeed. Just imagine the look on your employees' faces when you cycle in on Monday morning looking like you've just bullseyed the Death Star's thermal exhaust port.

By Andy Jowett

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