Star Wars, Like All Things, Is Legal

I was one of the many thousands of people who recently watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens, despite being on vacation. I was not even born when the original films were released, but was surrounded by the Star Wars culture as a padawan child.

The has been a significant cultural impact of the film series on our society, so there’s no surprise that there are tons of legal issues around it. Despite being a fictional universe, there is an entire wiki of Star Wars laws and legal systems. The site uses “source documents” such as disparate as a 1987 Disneyland ride, obscure fan fiction, and even the definitive and thorough Star Wars encyclopedia.

Star Wars laws can be categorized into general Codes and regulations‎, Galactic Alliance and Galactic Republic laws and acts‎, Imperial laws and acts‎, New Republic laws and acts‎, and Sith Empire laws and acts‎. There are even obscure legal systems which reflect natural law principles such as Ugorian Divine Law.

The argument can be made that much of the conflicts and wars in the stars were really over the superiority of one legal system over another, or the enforceability of agreements such as the Treaty of Coruscant.

When Nute Gunray, Viceroy of the Trade Federation, protests the order from Emperor Palpatine, he responds, “I will make it legal.” Perhaps a better dispute resolution system could have avoided all those blasters and bloodshed.

Of course Padmé Amidala reaction to Chancellor Palpatine’s Declaration of a New Order to the Galactic Senate is a commentary on the greatest failures of democracy itself.

The folks at LexisNexis have an excellent roundup of the top 5 Star Wars litigation cases:

  1. Wilda Wisdom vs. Aramark Foods; 2000 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 60403
  2. Lucasfilm Ltd., et al. v. William Osburn; 2007 Mealey’s CA Jury Verdicts & Settlements 296
  3. Lucasfilm Ltd. v. Shepperton Design Studios Ltd; 2006 Mealey’s CA Jury Verdicts & Settlements 1167
  4. Lucasfilm, Ltd. and Lucas Licensing, Ltd. V. Media Market Group, Ltd; 2002 Jury Verdicts LEXIS 55252
  5. Urcheck v. Kerr; 2001 IN Jury Verdicts Rptr. LEXIS 984 and EDWARD PEKIN vs. VITO PARISE; 2008 Nat. Jury Verdict Review LEXIS 1269

As provocative as litigation over unauthorized lightsabres and stormtroopers may be, it’s the “animated erotic parody” lawsuit that will have you as confused as a wookie.

There are deeper parallels which can be gleaned, perhaps “forced,” out of the original trilogy. Cass Sunstein, a constitutional lawyer and bureaucrat for the Obama administration, uses Star Wars, and its erratic plot development, to help explain constitutional law.

The “I am your father” moments mirror sentinel constitutional law cases, where pivotal transitions which occur while attempting to maintain the appearance of continuity. No, George Lucas did not plan for Darth Vader to be Luke’s father, or for Luke and Leia to be siblings. I still recall a troubled childhood trying to sort out that horrid incest and family dysfunction.

Legal academics have had their go at Star Wars. A 1989 piece in the Journal of Legislation compared President Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) and development of the laws of space in Star Wars versus Star Laws: Does SDI Conform to Outer Space Law; The Reagan Legacy and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Of course there was a lawsuit over the use of the term “Star Wars” when discussing this legislation, until Justice Gessell stated,

When politicians, newspapers and the public generally use the phrase star wars for convenience, in parody or descriptively to further a communication of their views on SDI, plaintiff has no rights as owner of the mark to prevent this use of STAR WARS. Even though the descriptive meaning is originally derived from the trade use, courts obviously cannot regulate the type of descriptive, non-trade use involved here without becoming the monitors of the spoken or written English language. Since Jonathan Swift’s time, creators of fictional worlds have seen their vocabulary for fantasy appropriated to describe reality. Trademark laws regulate unfair competition, not the parallel development of new dictionary meanings in the everyday give and take of human discourse. Plaintiff is in the difficult position of objecting because what he has depicted as fantasy may be frightening when depicted as a potential reality. Plaintiff must be left to his own devices to maintain the strength of his trademark by making the differentiation clear and convincing.

You might think they’re taking it all a little too seriously. Until you read about those fans earlier this month who threatened Disney with a “spoiler jihad” of the new film, unless Disney agreed to make even more movies about the additional plot lines found in things like that encyclopedia mentioned above. Conversely, there have been death threats from fans against journalists for including spoilers in their commentary on the movie.

How fans taught that “anger leads to hate, and hate to suffering,” could come up with that strategy leaves you confused, you might want to consider this meme circulating the Internet:

Star Wars is the story of an orphaned farm boy that is radicalized after a military strike kills his family. He is indoctrinated into an ancient religion and joins a band of insurgents on a terrorist attack that kills 300,000 people.

It seems Star Wars may have really been the story of Luke’s terrorist radicalization,

Obi Wan — a religious fanatic with a history of looking for young boys to recruit and teach an extreme interpretation of the Force — is practically salivating when he stumbles upon Luke, knowing he’s found a prime candidate for radicalization. Stahelski notes terror groups place a focus on depluralization, stripping away the recruit’s membership from all groups and isolating them to increase their susceptibility to terrorist messaging. Within moments of meeting Luke, Obi-Wan tells Luke he must abandon his family and join him, going so far as telling a shocking lie that the Empire killed Luke’s father, hoping to inspire Luke to a life of jihad.

If that’s the case, then maybe the Empire was right all along, as Jonathan Last argued in 2002,

In all of the time we spend observing the Rebel Alliance, we never hear of their governing strategy or their plans for a post-Imperial universe. All we see are plots and fighting. Their victory over the Empire doesn’t liberate the galaxy–it turns the galaxy into Somalia writ large: dominated by local warlords who are answerable to no one.

Which makes the rebels–Lucas’s heroes–an unimpressive crew of anarchic royals who wreck the galaxy so that Princess Leia can have her tiara back.

I’ll take the Empire.

More recently, Sonny Bunch justified in The Washington Post the destruction of the planet of Alderaan, and its 2 billion inhabitants, as a legitimate military target intended to minimize casualties,

The destruction of Alderaan, then, is more analogous to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than it is to a “genocide.”* Yes, it was horrible, and yes, it would be nice if it didn’t happen. But it was an attack on a legitimate military target and defensible under Just War Theory, an attack intended to save lives by deterring other major powers from beginning conflicts of their own. The Imperial Grand Moff Tarkin is no worse than Democratic President Harry S. Truman — and no one worth listening to considers Truman to be a monster.

The only flaw with Last’s theory is that he bases his argument on the Lucas films alone, not the “Expanded Universe” that those spoiler jihad fans adhere to. He even makes specific reference to the Expanded Universe and indicates he has no knowledge of it. Usually no one other than those obsessed with Star Wars does. Although he wouldn’t be the first to present a selective narrative on history, it’s worth considering who wrote these compendiums anyhow (likely Jedi sympathizers).

If that doesn’t lead your head satiated, the legal geeks (their term, not mine) have an entire category of posts exploring themes like Did Han Solo Abandon a Marriage? and Who is the True Legal Owner of R2D2 & C3PO?. If the droids or Han ever decide to come to Earth, I’ll be sure to refer them to one of those lawyers.

However, given the surprisingly strong emotions around Star Wars, it’s probably wise to state I take no responsibility for the content of any the links in this piece. There are no actual spoilers for the new film in any of my commentary.

Please don’t send me any threats. This is not the lawyer you are looking for.


  1. Bravo, Omar! That was fun from beginning to end.