Star Wars Creator Sued Government For Stealing Ideas

By Zack Zagranis | Published

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The ’80s were full of interesting match-ups, from Rocky vs. Mr. T to Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson to the Autobots vs. the Decepticons. One of the biggest rivalries nobody seems to talk about, however, is Star Wars vs Ronald Reagan. That’s right, in 1985, George Lucas went to court over the Gipper’s Strategic Defense Initiative, unofficially dubbed “Star Wars.”

Reagan’s Personal Death Star

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The Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, was a missile defense system proposed by the Reagan administration to protect the USA from attack. The US Department of Defense was tasked with creating what were essentially space lasers the US could use to shoot down nuclear missiles. It wasn’t long before detractors of the SDI started calling the project Star Wars in a derogatory fashion.

That’s because space lasers firing at a planet had, up until then, fallen exclusively under the purview of the Star Wars franchise. When Reagan’s critics heard the president was developing his own version of the Death Star, they understandably compared it to the films of George Lucas. As often happens in these situations, the program’s nickname stuck and was eventually used by the SDI’s supporters as well, much to the chagrin of the man who thought up the title “Star Wars” in the first place.

Lucas Files The Lawsuit

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As a result of politicians on both sides of the aisle using Star Wars without his permission, George Lucas filed a federal lawsuit over trademark infringement. The filmmaker targeted the two lobbying groups he felt were infringing on his trademark the most: High Frontier (a liberal think tank that endorsed the SDI) and the conservative Committee for a Strong, Peaceful America which also supported the initiative.

The Star Wars Creator Didn’t Spare Ideological Allies

While it’s not surprising that the famously left-leaning Lucas would go after Republicans for misusing the phrase Star Wars, the fact that he went after Democrats as well was a bit of a shock. A peacenik first and foremost, Lucas ultimately just didn’t want his movies associated with a real-life military initiative, no matter what side was doing the associating.

“Star Wars is a movie,” said Lucas of the SDI, “not a missile zapper.” The main goal of Lucas’s suit was to stop the government-backed think tanks from using the term “Star Wars” in commercials both sides were airing at the time.

The “Peace Shield”

Army Lieutenant General Daniel O. Graham, the leading advocate for the SDI and one of the defendants in the case found Lucas’s lawsuit ridiculous, seeing as how his side never wanted to call the initiative Star Wars in the first place. In fact, the commercial being aired by the right was actually a counterattack against another ad that only used the term to echo what the other side was calling it.

“We have tried unsuccessfully for more than two years now to get the media and SDI critics … to stop using the term ‘Star Wars,'” Graham said regarding the situation. The commercial in question even tried to get people to stop calling the SDI “Star Wars” and start calling it the less catchy “Peace Shield.”

The Court Finds George’s Lack Of Faith Disturbing

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In the end, it didn’t matter what political party was using the phrase Star Wars or why. The case was officially dismissed on November 26, 1985, by Judge Gerhard Gessell of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Gessell’s reasoning was that any lobbyist’s use of the phrase “Star Wars” in a “non-commercial and non-trade context fell outside the jurisdiction of trademark law.”

Basically, the court ruled that as long as no one was making “Star Wars Missile Defense System” t-shirts or action figures, they could continue using Star Wars as an informal name for the SDI, and if Lucas didn’t like it, oh well. Lucas got his revenge the next year when Lucasfilm dropped its own bomb on the USA: the Lea Thompson-led film Howard the Duck. Too bad Reagan wasn’t able to shoot that one down before it hit America.