On the first day of its new session, the high court refused Monday to hear arguments in the case, in which Cheers stars George Wendt and John Ratzenberger claim two robots stole their act.
The justices, without comment, let stand a ruling by a federal appeals court in California that reinstated the actors' lawsuit against Cheers producers Paramount Pictures and Host International, which runs the Cheers airport bars, after it had been dismissed by a federal judge in Los Angeles.
In a landmark case pitting studios against actors over the rights to personas they create on screen, Wendt (aka beer-loving Norm) and Ratzenberger (know-it-all mailman Cliff) say their identities were commercially exploited by Paramount and Host without their permission. The actors claim two life-size talking robots at a chain of Cheers-styled airport bars coopted their signature characters.
In several of the Cheers bars, there are two animatronic patrons named "Hank" and "Bob" that programmed to move and engage in humorous banter whenever real customers sit close by. One of the robots is quite heavy; the other wears a U.S. Postal Service uniform.
The actors sued Host International in January 1993, three months before the beloved comedy series ended its 11-year run on NBC. Host was licensed by the sitcom's producer, Viacom-owned Paramount, to create the Cheers bars in airports.
Wendt and Ratzenberger say the robots amounted to an unauthorized use of their likenesses, violating a California right-to-publicity law, which bars the sale of a product by using "another's name, signature, photograph or likeness in any manner" without the individual's permission.
"This is a huge issue for Hollywood," Dale F. Kinsella, a Los Angeles entertainment attorney, tells the Los Angeles Times. "If a studio acquires the right to license an actor's image cloaked in the outfit of character, then Warner Bros. could use Harrison Ford's face to sell cigarettes or beer as long as he was dressed as Indiana Jones."
Paramount argued that, as the creator of Cheers and owner of its copyright, it could do whatever it darn well pleased, including licensing "derivative works" based on the series.
The case was twiced tossed by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who ruled Paramount owned the characters and federal copyright protections were stronger than the state's publicity law. The second time, he decided the robots didn't even look like Norm and Cliff.
However, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice overturned the lower court's rulings, saying the federal law didn't necessarily supersede the state law. The appeals court also said a jury should decide how closely the robots mimic the actors.
After the second appeals court ruling, Paramount asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. Now, the case will go back to the judge in Los Angeles for the third time.