The Force and the Merchandise: IP rights around "Star Wars"
All over the world, fans celebrate Star Wars Day on 4 May. Why on this date in particular? Well, the pronunciation of the date "May the 4th" is very similar to the beginning of the probably most popular sentence from the space saga, "May the force be with you". Incidentally, the phrase has been registered as a word mark since 2020 (EM018300364).
Roboter "C3PO" (US251627S)
The pun was allegedly first made on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher coming to power on 4 May 1979. For some years now, 4 May has established itself as a day of celebration for the worldwide fan community. The city of Los Angeles, on the other hand, celebrates 25 May as Star Wars Day in memory of the premiere of the first film in the series there in 1977.
Since then, Star Wars has become probably the most commercially successful film series in the world (at most, the "enemy" Star Trek series can keep up). The socio-cultural influence of the space tale can hardly be overestimated; its popularity and distribution surpasses even James Bond or Harry Potter. Almost everyone in the world knows the stories about the villain Darth Vader, Princess Leia, the Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker or the wise Master Yoda; recently also the young Rey or the sinister Kylo Ren (EM014355986).
Intellectual property rights generate billions in sales
And what does all this have to do with the German Patent and Trade Mark Office? Quite a lot. According to estimates, the merchandising surrounding the films has generated over 30 billion dollars to date. And this was made possible by a clever property rights strategy of their creator George Lucas.
In 1977, the director, writer and producer accommodated the film studio with his salary, but secured extensive merchandising rights. When the unprecedented success of the first film became apparent, Lucas operated with all suitable industrial property rights: Among other things, he had toy figures of protagonists, robots and spaceships protected and registered their names as trademarks.
The villain as a trade mark
The figure of Master Yoda, for example, has been registered as a design under US265754S.
Darth Vader is registered as a three-dimensional trade mark (EM 005896601). The villain's name is also protected under the word mark "Lord Darth Vader" (DE 990370); his antagonist Obi-Wan Kenobi is registered as word mark DE 39609975. In the case of the Skywalkers, several family members are protected under trademark law, such as Shmi (DE 39609849)and Anakin (DE 39609976).
Lucasfilm had temporarily registered "Princess Leia" as a trademark in Nice Class 21, i.e. for combs, sponges, brushes etc (DE1074340; 1984-2004). The character names from the more recent films are also protected as trade marks for various classes of merchandising goods, such as "Poe Dameron" (EM018300375, Nice Classes 16, 25, 28).
The famous "Star Wars" logo was of course secured as a word-picture trademark (DE 971996).
The film studio also secured IP rights for toys
"Boba Fett" (US264109S)
However, Lucas was not able to secure property rights for some of the most popular figures and devices: the design for the cute, beeping robot "R2D2" was registered by the studio Twentieth Century Fox ( US251628S), as was the design for the "X-Wing" spaceship of the rebels ( US250480S). The studio also registered the design of the Empire's small fighter spaceships ("Toy spacecraft", US254081S).
Well protected galactically successful
"Jabba the Hut" (US277211S)
In global marketing, Lucas also did not fail to secure the German pronunciation of his characters, for example as the word mark "Erzwo-Dezwo R2D2"(DE 971997).
Even grotesque or cute side characters, who are only seen for a few moments in the films, were marketed as game figures with design protection, such as Jabba the Hutt ( US 277211S) or a cute little blue animal called Max Rebo ( US 277883S). Not to forget the imaginative machines like the elephant-like battle robot "Imperial Runner AT-AT" ( US266777S), with which countless children acted out the fight of the "dark side" against the Jedi.
Well secured by industrial property rights in numerous countries, Lucas and his company Lucasfilm brought an immense flood of merchandising products onto the market, which generated even higher revenues than the already galactically successful films. In 2012, Lucas sold the company and all trademark rights to Disney.
Bad feeling? Trademarked!
"Max Rebo" (US277883S)
The Star Wars makers have remained true to their successful trademark strategy to this day: The title of the last film for the time being, "The Rise of Skywalker", was also registered as a Union trademark (EM018051545), as was the title of the previous film (The last Jedi, EM016429656) and of course the spin-offs such as "The Mandalorian" (among others EM017965280).
Lucasfilm went one step further when they even registered a saying as a trademark: "I`ve got a bad feeling about this", a phrase that appears as a running gag in all the films, has been registered as an EU trademark since 1 March 2018 (word mark EM017480435).
If you want to know what could be next from the Star Wars makers, take a look at the trade mark applications of Lucasfilm in DPMAregister. There, for example, "The book of Boba Fett" (EM018386086) or "The Acolyte"(EM018352876) were recently filed. It will be interesting to see what is behind them...
Constantly something new from the technical bag of tricks
Lucasfilm has not only perfected the commercial exploitation of its films, but is also constantly advancing cinematic animation technology. For years, the company has reliably filed numerous patents in the field of computer graphics/CGI, most recently, among others, "Camera system for motion capture" ( US020200288050A1 (1,9 MB)), "Facilitate user maipulation" ( US020200249765A1 (2,04 MB)) or "Systems and methods for UV packing" ( US020200073536A1 (1,42 MB)).
Lucasfilm holds a proud 312 entries in the patent database of the DPMA DEPATISnet (as of 30 April 2021).
Use the force!
"Animation data transfer", US9858700B2
The fact that a great deal of research and development has gone into the films is also apparent. Critics sometimes complain that the makers put too much emphasis on visual effects, technical tricks and excessive merchandising instead of plot and dramaturgy. They would perhaps reply: "This is the way". At least they have secured this phrase as a word mark (EM018258235) in 2020....
Text: Dr. Jan Björn Potthast; Pictures: DPMAregister, DEPATISnet
Last updated: 2 December 2021