Here’s a nugget of Star Wars history you never hear much about: In 1990 Canadian writer Dean Preston sued George Lucas for copyright infringement and “breach of implied contract” to the tune of $128 million, claiming Lucas swiped the idea for Return Of The Jedi’s famed ewok characters from a script Preston authored in 1978 entitled Space Pets.
Preston sent his script to Lucas the year he completed it but heard nothing back. A half decade later, Preston’s “heart sank” when he spotted a car on a Northern California highway with the vanity license plate “EWOK.” Preston tailed the car until it pulled over; a pair of little people emerged, explaining their plate was a reference to recent work on a Star Wars film.
In addition to claiming invention of the term “ewok” (an abbreviation, Preston said, of “he walks”), the Calgary-based scribe argued Space Pets contained “a full description of [the ewoks’] nature, characteristics, habitat…and way of life in general.” The case actually went to trial in Canadian Federal Court, where Lucas took the stand to explain no unsolicited materials sent to him were ever opened and that ewoks were in fact an offshoot of his beloved wookiee character Chewbacca.
“It’s the price of success, I guess,” Lucas told reporters outside the court house. “Anytime you have a successful movie you have a lot of lawsuits.”
Some drama erupted during George’s testimony—at first he stated that he had pulled the term “wookiee” out of thin air, but under cross examination the director admitted disc jockey Terry McGovern had first presented the word (McGovern did ADR work for Lucas’s debut, THX 1138; after flubbing a line, the dj remarked, “I think I ran over a wookiee back there!”).
A bigger bombshell, though, came via University of Calgary drama professor James Dugan, who told the court had the plaintiff and defendent been his students, with Preston submitting Space Pets as a final project prior to Lucas submitting Return Of The Jedi, he would “bring Lucas before the dean on a charge of plagiarism.” In response, Lucas’s lawyers doubled down on the “we’ve never opened strange mail” defense.
It worked—Preston ended up losing this battle of Endor, and the powers that be have done a pretty good job of shoveling dirt on the entire story. Still, you have to wonder about the actual reality. Who would go toe-to-toe with Star Wars without a shred of merit? What are the odds of two people independent of one another dreaming up roughly the same alien mythology? Wouldn’t those vanity license plates have violated a non-disclosure agreement?
All I know for sure is Dean Preston’s Space Pets script included a character named Chi Chi Gomez. Ay Carumba.