You may recently have felt a great disturbance in The Force. It wasn’t the Palm Springs earthquake, or Lindsay Lohan’s courtroom meltdown. Nope, it was the “Star Wars Smackdown” instigated by George Lucas a few weeks ago.
Lucas is looking to “force” (I know, I know…) Hong Kong based laser manufacturer Wicked Lasers to change the design of a high powered laser product he feels looks too much like the famous (but fictional) lightsaber from his landmark films. His company, Lucasfilm Ltd., hassent a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action if the laser company refuses to make appropriate alterations or remove the product from the market outright. Lucas apparently perceives the laser as a copyright threat; according to CNN, the letter challenges that “[i]t is apparent from the design of the Pro Arctic Laser that it was intended to resemble the hilts of our lightsaber swords which are protected by copyright.”
Wicked Lasers, for its part, protests that the design was not meant to copy the iconic Star Wars weapon. The laser does not reference the term “lightsaber” in any way, although many bloggers have noted the eerie similarity between the Pro Arctic and the deadly lightsaber brandished by Luke Skywalker and his fellow Jedi warriors. Lucas contends that this proves the point: the public is being misled.
So is this really an infringing use? This, of course, is not the first time that real life technological advances have been inspired by, and cribbed from, imaginary ideas expressed in science fiction. Take, for example, the ubiquitous flip phones, from which those lunching at The Ivy appear ready at a moment’s notice to page Captain Kirk for a quick beam-up. The inventor of the first handheld mobile phone reportedly credited the Star Trek “communicator” as inspiring the whole concept.
Similarly, the origins of Altavista’s (now Yahoo’s) “Babel Fish” web translation service surely can be traced to the “Babel fish” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — a fictitious alien species that performs instantaneous translations of any language. Jules Verne is widely credited as having “invented” advanced submarines in his 1870 classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as is Arthur C. Clarke for proposing satellites as a means for mass communication years before Sputnik was launched. Verne even correctly predicted that weightlessness would exist in space in his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, in which three men attempt a moon launch using a cannon. And no one can credibly deny that the field of computer technology was driven by numerous science fiction tales, even setting aside all the problems created for Dave Bowman by the Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There has long been a tension between intellectual property law and technological innovation. Copyright law, at its heart, seeks to strike a balance between private incentives to engage in creative activity and the social benefits to be derived from the widespread use of these creative works. But copyright law isn’t supposed to stifle innovation or competition. From my perspective, it would be a strange world indeed if fiction and fantasy could trump actual scientific advancements.
And as always, there are the PR angles to consider as well as the legal ones. Many of the same nerds — err, “fervent Star Wars fans” — on whose recognition of the “lightsaber” laser Lucas relies to make his case are decidedly displeased with what they think is Lucas’ apparent “bullying” and/or “craziness.” And while Internet comment threads are often a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” in their own right, the tenor of the roughly 1,000 comments to CNN’s story is revealing (see, we here at Law Law Land are nerds too, so please don’t be offended).
I don’t know if Lucas will be successful. But I’ve heard that scientists are working on a real life version of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Apologies to Ms. Rowling, but I wouldn’t mind taking a spin in that thing. But let’s leave the dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park.