'Star Wars' Card Game App Lawsuit Produces Copyright Win for Lucasfilm

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 1980 -Billy Dee Williams - Harrison Ford -Photofest-h 2017
Lucasfilm Ltd./20th Century Fox/Photofest

A California federal judge has ruled that the maker of an app that lets Star Wars fans play a card game of Sabacc has violated copyrights belonging to Disney’s Lucasfilm. In a summary judgment decision on Friday, the judge is reserving the question of willful infringement for a jury.

Those familiar with the Star Wars canon will recognize Sabacc as the way in which Han Solo won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian. The card game is — or was — fictional until Ren Ventures launched its Sabacc app right before the 2015 theatrical release of The Force Awakens. Then, Lucasfilm went on the attack.

The defendant responded by questioning what was actually deposited with the Copyright Office for registration and challenging the scope of Lucasfilm’s copyright ownership. Ren Ventures also pointed to a lack of indication that the authorship was “made for hire.”

U.S District Court Judge Richard Seeborg doesn’t find the challenge availing and determines that Star Wars DVDs evincing what was deposited adequately demonstrate what is covered (including those scenes where Sabacc is discussed). The judge also doesn’t think the defendant's use of copyrighted material is transformative and rejects a fair use defense.

Seaborg also discusses Star Wars-themed GIFs circulating on social media.

The judge rules that the presence of Star Wars images and dialogue on outlets like Facebook and Twitter without objection from Lucasfilm doesn't mean the studio gave up the right to assert its copyright interests.

Ren Ventures, the judge writes, "claim they had no reason to believe Lucasfilm had rights in the Works because Star Wars-themed GIFs, which lack clear indicia of copyright ownership, are widely available and shared among users of the website Giphy and various social media platforms. Conversely, defendants also argue they could not expect to be sued for infringement because Lucasfilm had permitted the same allegedly infringing conduct by others. That copyright protections may be ignored or go undetected is not a strong indication that no such protections exist. Thus, while defendants’ purported reliance on Lucasfilm’s inaction regarding the accused copyright infringement has undoubtedly caused harm to them in the form of having to defend this lawsuit, the reliance was unjustified and the harm self-inflicted."

But then again, the judge isn't quite ready to rule out the possibility that the copyright infringement was innocent.

Even though it wasn't reasonable for Ren Ventures to assume Lucasfilm did not own Star Wars-related rights, the judge comments that "evidence of defendants’ awareness of the Works falls short of establishing actual awareness of infringing activity. While defendants arguably demonstrated reckless disregard or willful blindness in failing at least to investigate whether their conduct infringed upon Lucasfilm’s copyright interests, that is a question of material fact properly reserved for determination by a jury.

Here's the full decision.

The judge doesn't address the issue of trademarks, which is the subject of a separate line of arguments as well as a second lawsuit where Ren is alleging the studio's marketing of Sabacc for the recently released Solo infringes its own rights to the mobile game.