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George Lucas and the Imperial Stormtrooper uniform (Winslow Townson)
George Lucas and the Imperial Stormtrooper uniform (Winslow Townson)

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The (British) Empire strikes back in Star Wars legal fight Add to ...

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What would Lord Vader think? George Lucas has lost a lengthy legal battle over replicas of the iconic Imperial Stormtrooper helmets from the Star Wars movies.

Britain's top court today affirmed part of an appeals court ruling that said Andrew Ainsworth, a 63-year-old British engineer who took part in designing the Stormtrooper gear, did not violate British law in selling replicas made from the molds used in the 1977 film, and he can sell them. The helmets were deemed to be functional, rather than artistic works.

There's a great passage in today's 39-page ruling for lawyers, film buffs and Star Wars fans alike:

"In this Court the appellants have challenged the reasoning of the judge and the Court of Appeal. Mr. Sumption QC said that it was eccentric of the judge to describe the helmet's purpose as utilitarian, and that the Court of Appeal could find it to have a functional purpose only by treating it as having the same functional purpose as a real helmet 'within the confines of a film.'

"This is quite a puzzling point. The Star Wars films are set in an imaginary, science-fiction world of the future. War films set in the past ( Paths of Glory, for instance, depicting the French army in the first world war, or Atonement depicting the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk) are at least based on historical realities. The actors and extras in the trenches or on the beaches may be wearing real steel helmets, or (because real steel helmets of the correct style are unobtainable in sufficient numbers) they may be wearing plastic helmets painted khaki. In either case the helmets are there as (in the judge's words) 'a mixture of costume and prop' in order to contribute to the artistic effect of the film as a film."

For the record, the Star Wars films were not set in a "science-fiction world of the future," but rather "a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away."

The case was heard before Lord Phillips, Lord Walker, Lady Hale, Lord Mance and Lord Collins. (Lord Vader apparently didn't have a say.)

Let's have a tea party Everyone is at each other's throat as the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the U.S. debt ceiling looms, spooking investors around the globe.

There are no signs of a resolution, though other countries and more companies push America's politicians to resolve the spat, which threatens the government's triple-A credit rating and raises the spectre of default. And as The Wall Street Journal reports today, companies are moving to protect themselves by making arrangements for alternate financing and ensuring they have cash on hand.

French and Japanese officials warned that the U.S. must solve its crisis, and Daimler warned in an earnings statement that something has to give: "There would be a serious setback for the U.S. economy if no political agreement on raising the federal debt ceiling could be reached quickly. That would trigger considerable irritation in the capital markets and would have global effects through higher price volatility."

Just last week, a default was unthinkable, but observers now see that as not so far-fetched.

"So could the U.S. default? Absolutely, and hence the reason why the risk trade is more apprehensive than what is being reflected in Treasuries," said Derek Holt of Scotia Capital.

"That risk cannot be glossed over. I think it's a remote possibility, partly because there is more time at hand than Treasury lets on with its somewhat artificial and outdated Aug. 2 deadline but also because Presidential powers under the 14th amendment may be ultimately called upon in a worst case scenario. That said, rating agencies would be unlikely to view exercise of this power in a favourable light, such that the risk of weighing in with an intensified negative outlook could rise the more likely it appears that total deal grid lock is in place."

(Downgrades are almost the new normal. So far today, Greece, Cyprus and Nokia have been cut, and the day's only half over. I'm surprised the ratings agencies haven't downgraded me yet, given that my debt-to-output ratio is kind of high, though even I can't top Greece, whose debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to be almost 130 per cent by the end of the year.)

Euro-phoria fades And lest we forget, Europe's problems have not gone away. Indeed, the relief after last week's EU summit that sealed a bailout for Greece has quickly faded. To drive that point home, Standard & Poor's today cut Greece's rating again, to CC, which is a bit above the default level.

"The proposed restructuring of Greek government debt would amount to a selective default under our rating methodology," S&P said in a statement. "We view the proposed restructuring as a 'distressed exchange' because, based on public statements by European policymakers, it is likely to result in losses for commercial creditors."

This came as borrowing costs in Spain and Italy shot up again, bouncing up from their post-bailout lows.

"In fact, Italian bonds are getting hit harder than Spanish bonds, up double-digit basis points on the day," said Benjamin Reitzes of BMO Nesbitt Burns. "Markets don't appear satisfied with the latest bailout plan, as the [rescue fund]still doesn't have sufficient firepower to address problems in Italy. If this pressure continues, European leaders will need yet another summit."

Fairfax pumps capital into Bank of Ireland Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. is injecting capital into the Bank of Ireland, allowing Ireland's oldest bank to be the only one of its peers to avoid nationalization, The GLobe and Mail's Tara Perkins reports.

Fairfax has put together a group of investors including U.S. billionaire Wilbur Ross and Cardinal Capital Group, Fidelity, and Capital Research that will collectively buy a €1.1-billion stake (about $1.5-billion Canadian) in the bank. The bank has disclosed the sale of the stake, but has not named the investors.

CP profit slips Canadian Pacific Railway Co. cited "widespread and prolonged" flooding as it reported a lower second-quarter profit today, but a gain in revenues.

The railway earned $129-million or 76 cents a share, basic, in the quarter, down from $166.6-million or 99 cents a year earlier. Revenue edged up to $1.26-billion from $1.23-billion.

"Throughout the second quarter we experienced difficult operating conditions as a result of widespread and prolonged flooding along our right of way," said chief executive officer Fred Green.

"We had almost 90 separate outages during the quarter and our engineering team worked as swiftly as possible to bring the track back. We rerouted and detoured traffic over other railways and incurred significantly higher operating costs to ensure delivery of our customers' shipments. Repairs are now complete and service levels are returning to normal."

UBS downbeat on RIM Analysts at UBS Securities Canada have slashed their price target on shares of Research In Motion Ltd. , citing its fight against Apple Inc. and Google Inc. and what it sees as "painful transition."

RIM stock appears cheap, but analysts Phillip Huang and Amitabh Passi said they continue to "lack visibility into normalized earnings power." They cut their 12-month target on the stock to $30 (U.S.) from $41 and held their rating at neutral.

The two analysts added they continue to see challenges in the operating platform battle with Apple's iOS and Google's Android, and, possibly, Miscrosoft Corp. next year as it teams with Nokia Corp. .

The planned introduction of its new devices - RIM says it has several in the pipe - could turn the tide, they added, though it may be next year, and a new platform, before there's a "more meaningful transition."

The analysts also cut their profit estimates for RIM's 2012-2013 fiscal year.

"We still see much uncertainty in the outlook of the company particularly as it transitions to QNX (its new platform) in 2012 and as the competition between BlackBerry, Android, and iOS intensifies," they said.

"Adding to the platform wars is likely a concerted effort by [Microsoft-Nokia]in 2012 as well. With increasing reports of deteriorating morale and no fundamental changes to senior management (many largely intact and with expanded responsibilities), we continue to see a company undergoing a painful transition, with no fundamental change evident."

RIM has promised better times ahead. And earlier this week, it shuffled some management positions and announced plans to cut 2,000 jobs.

Home prices rise Canadian house prices rose 1.3 per cent in May, the strongest in a series of increases, according to the Teranet-National Bank National Composite House Price Index released today. Year over year, prices were up 4.4 per cent.

Prices climbed in May in all six areas measured by the index, most notably in Vancouver, at 1.6 per cent, and Toronto, at 0.7 per cent.

"The well-above-1 per cent monthly rises of the composite index in April and May were fuelled by the Vancouver market," said Marc Pinsonneault of National Bank Financial.

"... Given the delay between transactions and inscriptions in public land registries, this is likely to be explained by front-loading of sales, especially obvious in Vancouver, to beat the reduction, effective last Mid-March, in the maximum amortization period of insured mortgages. This spike in activity is now behind us. Therefore, the recent large monthly rises in home prices in Canada should not be a lasting trend."

In International Business today Daimler AG struck a gloomy note on the global economy today, saying a continuation of the U.S.'s weak recovery, lack of political agreement on raising the country's debt ceiling, budget cuts in Europe and energy market volatility could hamper growth. Chris Bryant of The Financial Times reports from Frankfurt.

In Economy Lab today There may be a point at which global investors get indigestion from U.S. money printing. Natsuko Waki of Reuters examines the issue.

From today's Report on Business

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