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Paramount’s Claim for Character Ownership in ‘Cheers’ Case Rejected

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Norm and Cliff will have their day in court after all.

In a victory for actors, the Supreme Court on Monday turned down Paramount Pictures’ claim that the studio alone has the right to profit from its “Cheers” characters, even if this means marketing talking robots who look like the actors who played Norm and Cliff in the long-running television series.

The high court’s action clears the way for the two actors, George Wendt and John Ratzenberger, finally to bring their lawsuit before a jury in Los Angeles.

The jurors will be called upon to decide whether Paramount and Host International Inc. were commercially exploiting the actors’ likenesses when they opened Cheers-style bars in several airports featuring the talking robots.

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The two actors “are anxious to proceed to trial. This has been going on for eight years,” said Los Angeles lawyer Dale F. Kinsella, who represents Wendt and Ratzenberger.

The case highlighted a conflict in the law between the rights of performers and creators.

California law gives performers and celebrities a right to control the use of their images and to prohibit others from selling products with their “likenesses.”

However, federal copyright law gives studios the “exclusive right” to profit from the original characters that they create.

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When the two actors sued Paramount over their licensing of the Cheers-type bars, the studio said that, because it had the copyright to the characters, the actors’ claims should be thrown out.

But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused and ruled that the actor’s image is a “personal property right” owned by the actor and is separate from the copyright to the original character.

In a one-line order, the Supreme Court denied the studio’s appeal in the case (Paramount Pictures vs. Wendt and Ratzenberger, 99-1567).

The high court’s refusal to take up the case leaves intact the 9th Circuit ruling that strongly protects performers. If a Los Angeles jury rules for the actors and awards damages to them, the studio again could appeal the issue as high as the Supreme Court

Robert S. Chapman, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents Paramount, said he is optimistic the studio will prevail before the jury. The two robots who make bar talk are called “Bob” and “Hank” and do not closely resemble the two “Cheers” actors, he said.

“I think when the jury takes a look at the robots, they will side with us,” Chapman said.

The appeal in the “Cheers” case was one of more than 1,200 that the Supreme Court turned away on the first day of its new term.

Typically, the justices choose a dozen or so cases that raise important legal issues from among the hundreds of appeals that arrive during the summer. Then, they issue one-line rejections for all the rest.

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The appeals are closely watched, however, because they leave intact potentially significant lower-court rulings. Among the cases turned away:

* Supervisors who sexually harass both men and women may be immune from federal lawsuits. Steven and Karen Holman, a married couple who worked for the Indiana Department of Transportation, sued and complained that their supervisor had made sexual advances to both of them.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago threw out their claim on grounds that “the ‘equal opportunity’ or ‘bisexual’ harasser . . . is not discriminating on the basis of sex” and therefore has not violated the federal law against sex discrimination. Without comment, the court refused to hear their appeal (Holman vs. Indiana, 00-230).

* Discoverers of lost shipwrecks are not entitled to all the gold and valuables they find. Instead, the insurance companies who paid claims on the shipwrecks are still the official owners of the treasure, even if it sat on the sea bottom for a century or more, the lower courts said. An Ohio treasure hunting team found the wreck of gold-laden S.S. Central America, which sank off the Atlantic Coast in 1857. The team does not own the treasure, the U.S. appeals court in Virginia said, but it is due a significant percentage as a salvage award. The high court turned away the divers’ claim to all of the “abandoned” treasure (Columbus-America Discovery vs. Atlantic Mutual, 99-1935).

* An experimental elementary school at UCLA can continue to use race as a factor in selecting its students (Hunter vs. Regents of the University of California, 00-135). Although the Supreme Court has rejected the official use of race as a decision-making factor in areas such as contracts and state scholarships, it refused to hear a challenge to the special school run by UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. Last year, the U.S. appeals court, on a 2-1 vote, said it was reasonable for the school to seek a racially balanced class because its purpose is to study how to improve urban schools.

* The $5 billion in punitive damages handed down against Exxon because of the 1989 oil spill in Alaska will not be overturned because of a bad joke by a court bailiff. The oil giant is still appealing the size of the award as excessive and unconstitutional, however.

During the jury’s long deliberations in 1994, a bailiff apparently pulled out his gun and in an offhand comment said that he might put one dissenting juror “out of her misery.” The bailiff said that he was only joking but he was later fired. In its appeals, Exxon said it was denied the right to a “fair and impartial jury.” But the U.S. appeals court in San Francisco rejected that claim and the justices refused to hear it as well (Exxon Mobil Corp. vs. Baker, 00-90).


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