September 27, 2000
7:56 AM   Subscribe

Norm and Cliff may be headed to the Supreme Court to battle some sticky isssues. Should a studio own characters and use them in any way they see fit, despite the actors' wishes? Or do actors have a say in how their likenesses are used? Who really "owns" a character?
posted by mathowie (14 comments total)
IANAL, but my immediate reaction would be that the studio owns the characters, and rights to the image of the actors as the characters (meaning they couldn't age Cliff or Norm)....
posted by owillis at 8:08 AM on September 27, 2000

IANAL? Is that Latin? Oh, ok, I see.
posted by mathowie at 8:15 AM on September 27, 2000

If I remember rightly Norm and Cliff wrote a lot of the dialogue themselves. They weren't just plugin actors to the series. Regardless, the intent of these guys going into the show should be respected. They probably didn't do it to sell cigarettes, their intent was to do a comedy.

I can imagine situations where a celebrity X does a five second commercial for a local fleamarket and ends up selling ibooks.
posted by holloway at 8:16 AM on September 27, 2000

Wow, modern problems are so unusual. In print there are work for hire contracts, one time use, and outright sale. When I sell drawings I usually sell them as one application unlimited. You bought it, you can use it all you want, but it cannot be resold or used in a different way than was first agreed on. That means the tomato I draw for your story on tomatoes can be used for your next story on tomates, but cannot be used on your spagetti sauce label if you decide to diversify. It is an odd distinction, but it is one I am comfortable with.
I am guessing the studio will not be able to use promo photos of the actors in this new way, but they can hire look alikes to sit in the airport cheers to cavort with the customers.
posted by thirteen at 8:20 AM on September 27, 2000

They should just wait until they're dead, then they can stick their likenesses in Coors ads, goofing around with John Wayne, or dancing with vacuum cleaners like Fred Astaire. Come to think of it, the actor who played Coach is already dead! Problem solved!

I'm not sure they need likenesses of Norm and Cliff in the (ecch!) Cheers Bars anyway. Why not just have a clock that goes off every hour with a cacophony of voices yelling "Norm!" or I bet Shelley Long's not doing anything. They could probably just have her actually be a waitress.
posted by honkzilla at 9:18 AM on September 27, 2000

I contacted Shelley Long's management company here in Hollywood. (At least, I think it was her management company. It sounded like it might have been Shelley herself standing at a payphone). They (she) agreed to Honkzilla's suggestion, but for not a penny less than five bucks an hour, plus tips. Oh, and she won't be required to tip out the busboys.
posted by Optamystic at 9:30 AM on September 27, 2000

While we're calling out the terrible posthumous appropriation of image, what about Einstein in Pepsi commercials and George Washington's head going to clubs in the ads for the new "golden dollar" coin? That's awful. As for Cliff and Norm, they've been milking their bit for years, too. I draw your attention to John Ratzenberger's Pitney Bowes campaigns and the "beer man" bit George Wendt did for Coors.
posted by norm at 9:46 AM on September 27, 2000

norm (Norm!!!!), I think the issue at hand is whether Cliff and Norm have a say in their likenesses being used. They chose to do their ads, now someone wants to use their images without their consent (and probably what started the whole thing: without any payment).

But they're fighting over fictional characters, it will be interesting to see what the court rules.

(god, I hate the Einstein ads, like a physics genius would have ever given a crap about which brand of brown fizzy sugar water is better.)
posted by mathowie at 10:02 AM on September 27, 2000

well, now, I believe that neither actor could have done a commercial as "norm" or "cliff". however, since they are the actors themselves they can call themselves something different and *act* exactly the same way.

so how is this different from the mechanical norm and cliff in the bar?

I'm actually on the actor's side on this thing, but as I think it through, I'm not sure that they have a leg to stand on.

and I wonder if this even covers the copyright owner selling footage from an old episode, for example, to promote another product. if I were the actor I'd be furious if that happened.

posted by rebeccablood at 10:16 AM on September 27, 2000

While we're at it, let's not forget the biggest offender of all, Apple, inc. Their reprehensible "Think Different" campaign has posthumously appropriated the likenesses of everyone from Ghandi to John Lennon to Jim Henson. Implying, without directly stating, that these luminaries would have rousingly endorsed their crappy little iMacs.
In my neighborhood, at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland, there is a FIFTEEN STORY BANNER, on the side of a building. On the banner is an image of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr, passionately extolling his audience to "Think Different". Makes me wanna holler.
And if the images were sold by the families of these great men and women, then they should be deeply ashamed of themselves. Whoring the image of ones' forbears is a hell of a way to carry on the family legacy. Well, what else do you expect, living in the United States of Advertising.
posted by Optamystic at 10:29 AM on September 27, 2000

Hey! I own Star Trek action figures of Dwight Schultz and Whoopi Goldberg... I mean, Lt. Barkley and Guinan... Not to mention both the young/thin and old/fat versions of Scotty/James Doohan. And, of course, it's the same parent company commodifying the "Cheers" characters (though they may have made a mistake giving "Woody" the character the same first name as the actor). Still, anybody who's watched much TV (2.4% of MeFi'ers) has seen more than one actor play the same role (Did David Janssen's estate have to approve new "Richard Kimballs"?) So, is the real issue the act of using robots designed to resemble the actors, and if so, how much do they resembe them? (If it's as much as the Star Trek action figures, they'll be unrecognizable)
posted by wendell at 10:50 AM on September 27, 2000

There's no fundamental principle involved here.

It's entirely contract law. It will be decided based on the precise wording of the employment contract those two actors signed when they took those jobs. That's all.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 4:54 PM on September 27, 2000

Yeah, but it will set precedent for contracts where it wasn't stated explicitly. Which, guess what, theirs may be.

They probably weren't expected to be marketable up front.

What *I* found intriguing was that the pro- argument in the MSNBC piece came from the Paramount lawyer arguing the case, but the con- argument was from an independent industry lawyer. It's traditional that *both* such arguments come from independents, no?

Couldn't they *find* one?
posted by baylink at 7:59 PM on September 27, 2000

I really don't care about the outcome, but as a consumer I avoid all products endorsed by, "TV's Hank" or whomever. Its pathetic to take characters out of their context, a usually laughless sitcom, to sell their cheesy wares. If it was for another creative project and they did truly create their characters I might even care, but this is really about millionares sqeezing as much milk outta old mama cow as possible.

I think RobotFrank puts it best in his essay on George Foreman and his late-night TV grill. Its under 9-23-00.

posted by skallas at 10:50 PM on September 27, 2000

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