The late seventies were an amazing time for fans of action science fiction. In 1977, the first Star Wars film was released, kicking off a massive franchise that would last all the way to today.
Quite simply, it took the country by storm and became a cultural phenomenon, seemingly out of nowhere. However, it wasn’t the only action-based science fiction on offer. Just one year later, in 1978, the pilot episode of Battlestar Galactica aired.
Though the initial pilot would go on to earn solid ratings on a very modest budget, the series itself would only last 24 episodes in one season. Though later revivals would bring the show back in force, it seemed like the show was destined to become a footnote and an also-ran in the genre.
But one area where Battlestar Galactica did make an immediate impact was in the courtroom. That’s because, that same year, Twentieth Century-Fox filed a lawsuit against Universal Pictures over Battlestar Galactica, claiming that it was a copyright infringement of Star Wars.
To back up their case, Fox listed some 32 alleged similarities between the two works that, they claimed, were original ideas to Star Wars that Battlestar copied.
The case ended up dragging on for five years and made it to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, for such a major case, the ending is not very satisfying. The two sides opted to settle ahead of a potential trial, leaving the allegations unresolved.
However, it’s still interesting to take a look at a major legal clash between two heavyweights in the science fiction genre and try to understand what, if anything, Battlestar actually did wrong.
Understanding the Case
The lawsuit itself was fairly straightforward. Fox claimed that Battlestar Galactica took original ideas, concepts and elements from Star Wars and used them in creating the series.
To that end, they listed some 34 specific similarities that they both owned and were infringed. Those concepts included:
- A friendly robot that helps the protagonists (comparing C3PO/R2D2 to Muffit)
- A heroine imprisoned by totalitarian forces
- Spaceships that are made to look old despite traveling the stars
- The destruction of “an entire planet, central to the existence of the democratic forces”
- A conflict between democratic and totalitarian forces
- A climax that features democratic fighter pilots targeting totalitarian headquarters
This prompted Universal to file a countersuit, alleging Star Wars was actually using the robot drones from their 1972 film Silent Running.
However, the district court was not very well swayed by Fox’s arguments, partially granting a motion of summary judgment in favor of Universal. According to the lower court, Fox’s arguments could not sustain allegations of copyright infringement.
The Ninth Circuit, however, disagreed with the lower court’s decision. The Appeals Court was careful to not say that Battlestar Galactica was an infringement of Star Wars, it did say that the two works were similar enough that there were questions of fact, not law. As such, they ruled that the summary judgment was inappropriate and remanded the case back to the lower court for a trial.
However, that trial never happened. The case was quickly settled, and Battlestar Galactica would stay off television for 20 years. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
Was Battlestar Galactica an Infringement?
Fox did not have to look hard for similarities between the two. Even a cursory viewing of both works makes it easy to spot the many things they have in common.
Stylistically, they both look very similar. They have similar feels in their ships, their fashion and their themes. Though the stories are very different, both feature a small ragtag group of survivors fighting for survival against a galaxy-dominating regime.
However, the influence that Star Wars had on Battlestar Galactica is not exactly a secret. One of the working titles for Battlestar was “Saga of a Star World”. Furthermore, Battlestar Galactica hired John Dykstra, the special effects lead for Star Wars, to create the show’s effects.
Battlestar Galactica was very much an attempt to cash in on the success of Star Wars and a way to give a hungry audience more content.
But that doesn’t mean it was a copyright infringement.
As Emmalee Boekweg’s excellent article on Utah Law Student Land pointed out, Fox had some serious issues ahead of it when trying to prove that Battlestar wasn’t just a copycat, but an infringer.
To make their case, Fox would have had to prove three things:
- That the elements at issue were original to them.
- That those elements qualify for copyright protection.
- That Battlestar Galactica copied those elements.
The third element would not be particularly difficult, but both one and two are very challenging.
For example, there have been many examples of friendly robots aiding protagonists before Star Wars, this includes the 1965 series Lost in Space. Other elements such as a group of rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime and tropes that are almost as old as literature itself.
But even if they could prove some elements were original, copyright does not apply to ideas. Fox would have to prove that the copying extended to the expression of the idea, something that would be very difficult to do.
Because of issues like these, Boekweg draws the conclusion that, “Instances of the characters, plot elements, political situations, etc. in popular pre-1977 science fiction suggest that these things were not invented by Star Wars. Based on this evidence, a continued trial would probably have resulted in judgment favorable to Universal Studios….”
And, to be frank, I have to agree. While it is easy to see why Lucas and Fox were upset, their legal arguments are thin and, for further proof of that, we need to look no farther than our current movie making climate.
Today, we have the term “mockbuster” to describe films or TV shows that attempt to cash in on the success of a much larger franchise. Those films are often much closer to their source material than Battlestar Galactica ever was to Star Wars.
Though the lines aren’t perfectly clear by any stretch of the imagination, if this issue were to come up today, a lawsuit is much less likely.
While I don’t necessarily agree that the lawsuit killed Battlestar Galactica as the show faced a variety of other challenges, it would have been interesting to see what, if any, changes would have happened should the lawsuit not been an issue.
Still, things worked out fine for Battlestar Galactica. A mid-2000s reboot gave the show a proper run, and the show is held in much higher esteem today than it was in the late seventies and early eighties.
Furthermore, the reboot took the show in a different direction, with a grittier, more dark feel that separated it from Star Wars almost completely.
Battlestar Galactica is now its own sci-fi and its own universe. Something it never could have been in the shadow of Star Wars.