'Cheers' stars lose court battle to have control over characters

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The Independent US

George Wendt and John Ratzenberger have been earning a nice living from re-runs of Cheers since the popular American television sit-com came off the air in 1993. They are the actors who played Norm, the accountant, and Cliff, the mailman, in the quintessential male-slob comedy set in a friendly Boston bar.

George Wendt and John Ratzenberger have been earning a nice living from re-runs of Cheers since the popular American television sit-com came off the air in 1993. They are the actors who played Norm, the accountant, and Cliff, the mailman, in the quintessential male-slob comedy set in a friendly Boston bar.

But the pair have done altogether less well from the likenesses of their characters that have appeared in Cheers-themed airport bars across America. The life-sized robots that adorn the bars certainly look like Norm and Cliff, and even talk like Norm and Cliff, but Wendt and Ratzenberger have not received a penny in compensation.

Nor will they ever. Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court refused to take up the case, ending a seven-year legal battle that could have had wide ramifications for the legal right of actors to control the image of the characters they play.

Wendt and Ratzenberger argued that their identities were commercially exploited without their permission. However, Paramount Pictures, which produced Cheers, argued that it, and not the actors, held the copyright to Norm and Cliff and had the right to exploit it any which way it pleased.

Paramount won the case at trial, and again on appeal, and again when it was taken before a federal judge. Nevertheless, entertainment lawyers had high hopes that the Supreme Court would have examined the issue. With actors feeling generally shortchanged these days - a dispute over payment for appearances in new media like the internet could spark a major strike next year - some of the industry's rank and file saw an opportunity to open up a new vista for compensation.

It is not just the money that worries actors; they worry that over-identification with well-loved characters such as Norm and Cliff can jeopardise their chances of finding work in the future.

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