Intellectual Property Fun: Is Comedy Central Claiming It Owns The Character Stephen Colbert?

from the stephen-colbert-stephen-colbert-stephen-colbert dept

For years, when Stephen Colbert was on Comedy Central, he actually would discuss intellectual property issues with surprising frequency, including taking on SOPA back when it was a thing. Perhaps this is because he has a brother who is an intellectual property lawyer (who apparently works for the Olympics, which is not very encouraging). So it’s interesting to see that Colbert is now claiming that a lawyer from Comedy Central or Viacom (he’s not entirely clear) has contacted CBS to say that it holds the rights to the “character” of Stephen Colbert.

If you’re not at all familiar with Colbert, this will take some unpacking. For many years, Colbert hosted a TV show on Comedy Central (owned by Viacom) called The Colbert Report, in which he played a pompous/clueless TV news blowhard… also named Stephen Colbert. A big part of the conceit was that this was a character, quite different than the actual Stephen Colbert in real life. More recently, Colbert ended that show, to move to network TV to take over David Letterman’s old slot, where it’s now the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Importantly, on the Late Show, Colbert insisted that he was leaving “the character” of Stephen Colbert behind and would actually be himself, Stephen Colbert. Got that?

In the last few months, however, there have been some concerns that this new network non-character Colbert wasn’t performing well in the ratings — and part of the blame placed on that was the fact that he was no longer using the character of Stephen Colbert from the Colbert Report.

?Late Show? has had trouble finding the funny. That?s not surprising, given how reliant his Comedy Central show was on the character he played: a smug, self-absorbed conservative talk host. That character is gone now, and now the hunt is on for what works with the ?real Stephen.? Some of the standing bits toss off some good one-liners, including a fake confessional booth where Colbert admits to nonsensical sins. But too many set-ups fall flat. The ?cold open? at the start of the show could develop into a keeper but at the moment it feels forced and ends abruptly, rather than naturally flowing into the title sequence.

Perhaps because of this, and as an attempt to boost ratings, last week at the Republican Convention, Colbert did two things — he brought Jon Stewart on to return to the main desk to do a story on Donald Trump… and he brought back the Stephen Colbert character:

Except… according to (not a character… we think…) Colbert, some bigwig lawyer, at Viacom or Comedy Central has called up the lawyers at CBS to say they can’t do that any more.

I’m almost surprised that Colbert didn’t have his brother on to talk about this, but perhaps his brother is busy sending nastygrams to companies telling them they can’t tweet about the Olympics. Either way, Colbert’s “solution” to this issue is to say that the character of Stephen Colbert from the Colbert Report will no longer appear on his show… but instead, there will be a character named Stephen Colbert who is the other (character) Stephen Colbert’s “identical twin cousin.” You can see it all in the video above, which also concludes with Colbert bringing back one of his popular Colbert Report segments “The Word,” which is now rebranded as “The Werd.”

Of course, with Colbert, it’s never entirely clear how much of what he says is serious or not, so it’s possible that this is all a ploy to boost the ratings. However, usually when he does these things, they’re at least based on a kernel of truth. And, if that’s the case, it’ll be interesting to see if the Viacom/Comedy Central lawyers take exception to this workaround. It would certainly be a fun lawsuit to see them arguing over which forms of Stephen Colbert Stephen Colbert can use…

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Companies: cbs, comedy central, viacom

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Comments on “Intellectual Property Fun: Is Comedy Central Claiming It Owns The Character Stephen Colbert?”

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Thad (user link) says:

A parallel?

I’m from Arizona, where there used to be a popular kids’ show called The Wallace and Ladmo Show.

After the show ended, Ladmo tried to use his name to market some products (“Ladmo’s Cupcakes” IIRC but it could have been something else). If memory serves, the TV station that owned the show took him to court.

Ladmo’s birth name was Ladimir. His co-star had suggested the “Ladmo” nickname, as well as the costume the character wore.

And — again, I may be misremembering the details, but I THINK this is how it went — ultimately the court ruled that, as a result of this, the TV station owned both the “Ladmo” name and character design (even though “Ladmo” was now his legal name, and was short for his birth name), and he was enjoined from selling any products under that name or while wearing that costume without the station’s permission.

He still did public appearances as Ladmo up until shortly before he died, though.

(And if any locals are reading this, hearing this story for the first time, and bummed out by it, for what it’s worth Wallace and Ladmo apparently made peace before he died.)

I believe I read all this in a book called Thanks for Tuning In. Not sure if it’s still available for sale (and I don’t imagine it was ever widely available outside the Phoenix area), but if anyone wants to check me on the details, that would be the place to do it.

All that seems a little bit tangentially related to the Colbert story. Although Comedy Central certainly can’t claim any ownership over the “Stephen Colbert” name or character design.

Perhaps the better comparison is, well, The Late Show. When Letterman moved to CBS, NBC claimed to own the Larry “Bud” Melman character — so Letterman just started calling Calvert DeForest by his real name, and made no other changes.

Though, again, that’s got a name change at issue, so not quite the same.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: A parallel? (Actually, an aside...)

See here for a review of Wallace and Ladmo, with a discussion of the lawsuit.

The article details that it was the cookie company that instituted the lawsuit, having its nose out of joint that the TV show was being cancelled and were suing for lost revenue. The link talks a bit about the antics that went on in the court room; a bit more entertaining than some of the copyright troll transcripts. (But not Prenda’s. Never better than Prenda’s!)

Thad (user link) says:

@Anon @10: Thanks for the link! As you probably noticed, I was a little nervous I might be getting the facts wrong, pulling them from memory.

@Anon @11: I don’t think it’s quite the same area of law as the Zappa dispute, since the Zappa Family Trust owns the trademark to “Zappa Plays Zappa” (and to Frank Zappa’s name, though I think that’s probably shakier — Dweezil’s lawyers advised him to drop the “Dweezil Zappa Plays Frank Zappa” name too, but I think he would have probably prevailed in court; Beatles cover bands can promote themselves as Beatles cover bands without infringing the Beatles trademark, and it seems to me that the same goes for Frank Zappa cover bands, whether or not they include members who are actually named Zappa).

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re:

Stan Lee Media is another example; Stan Lee founded it in the 1990’s when he had a contract dispute to Marvel, then returned to Marvel once the dispute was settled, then got in an extended legal battle with Stan Lee Media.

But again, that’s trademarks, not quite the same thing. If Marvel had claimed to own the Stan Lee character, including his manner of speaking and his appearance with the mustache and aviator sunglasses, that would have been more similar to the situation we’re talking about now.

Rudyard Holmbast says:

His ratings are down because he can’t play his old character? Yeah, sure that’s what it is. Give me a break. His viewership on Comedy Central was a tiny fraction of what it is now. Quite a few polls have demonstrated fairly conclusively why his ratings are MSNBC-level horrible, and it’s not because he can’t pretend to be “Stephen Colbert”(though he is just as smug and obnoxious as the character he once played). When you make a career out of poking fun at only one side of the political spectrum, you shouldn’t be surprised when Americans on that side of the spectrum decide they aren’t going to watch your new show. The aforementioned polls have found that the number of conservatives/Republicans who watch his show is practically non-existent. You can’t alienate huge chunks of your potential audience and not expect to pay the price.

The list of people who told CBS this very thing would happen if they hired Colbert is about ten miles long, so they can’t say they weren’t warned. Frankly, CBS can’t cancel his must-avoid show soon enough. Colbert is painfully unfunny and ridiculously partisan. If I wanted to watch what is basically a liberal talk-show with a few jokes thrown in, I would watch MSNBC(ok, no I wouldn’t).

He can try all he wants to revamp the show, but the bridges have already been burned.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Your comment makes no sense, but that’s pretty normal for a whiny right-winger.

If what you said was the true reason, then his ratings would have been consistently falling at Comedy Central before he moved to his new show. But, that’s not what happened, his ratings were pretty consistent until he made the move and ditched his character.

The truth is, he built an audience with the character he had poking fun at people like you, and the audience didn’t move with him when he changed characters. Same thing happens with most comedians – unless they manage to create a new character that’s equally popular as the one they left behind at their old venue, their audience doesn’t follow them. That’s got nothing to do with politics.

“Colbert is painfully unfunny and ridiculously partisan.”

Well, you’d know about that it seems. You share the same foolish obsession with MSNBC for some reason as well, even though by your own choice of attack (low ratings), most liberals don’t care for it either. The problem with being a partisan fool is you sometimes have to invent an opponent to appear to be on the “right” side.

“You can’t alienate huge chunks of your potential audience and not expect to pay the price.”

Which is why Fox’s ratings are in the toilet, right?

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

His viewership on Comedy Central was a tiny fraction of what it is now.

He was drawing 1 to 1.5 million on Comedy Central, and is between 2 and 3 million now. So no, unless you consider a third to three fourths a tiny fraction.

Quite a few polls have demonstrated fairly conclusively why his ratings are MSNBC-level horrible

He’s slightly behind Jimmy Kimmel and about a million behind The Tonight Show. I’m thinking you’re just making stuff up.

Whatever says:

You could look, example, at the world of professional wrestling. Ring names are sort of like character names on a TV drama, but with a twist. Sometimes it’s the wrestling promotion that comes up with the name, gimmick, or angle that gets the character “over”, and sometimes it’s the wrestler that comes to the promotion with it all pre-made.

You can look at the story of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, who came to the fore at WWE (then WWF) during wresting’s golden growth era in the mid 90s. They were known as Diesel and Razor Ramone. They were insanely popular, but ended up moving to a competiting promotion. WWF would not allow them to take the characters with them, and they were forced to use other names in the new promotion, even though well known. WWF even mocked them by putting other people in their place with the same names, perhaps to somehow prove they owned the names.

Yet, at the same time, you have people like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan who “own” their names, and have moved back and forth between promotions without issue.

Colbert is a character, but it’s also a role that (like Diesel and Ramone) can’t be played successfully by anyone else. Part of what made Colbert’s show work was that he was, for all intents and purposes, that character all the time, and did not fall out of character even in appearance outside the show. It would seem to be entirely wrong to stop him from being and acting in the manner he is best known for. We all lose when he can’t be that character.

Monday (profile) says:

It is probably a ploy...

It is probably a ploy… as Late Show w Colbert has had its occasional “The Word“, and he even charged the Podium this week at the DNC, which is in keeping with his act(ions).

I am pretty sure that anything that Stephen Colbert does, says, or makes a reference to is his, and guarded like the President. Note, he always says that’s a copyright, because, “I just made that. That’s mine.

And, like it was stated, his Intellectual Property Lawyer Brother, has his back, along with the twenty lawyers his show has on retainer… that’s a guess. 🙂

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