Can Stephen Colbert Really Be Legally Stopped From Being Stephen Colbert?

“Late Show” host says he’s being barred from portraying the “Colbert Report” version of himself

Last Updated: July 28, 2016 @ 4:54 PM

Stephen Colbert may never be himself again — or at least, the version of himself that appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

After briefly resurrecting the “Colbert Show” iteration of Stephen Colbert last week, the host of CBS’ “Late Show” announced Wednesday that a lawyer from another company had contacted CBS’s top lawyer to say that the character Stephen Colbert is their intellectual property.

“So, it is with a heavy heart that I announce that — thanks to corporate lawyers — the character of Stephen Colbert, host of ‘The Colbert Report,’ will never be seen again,” Colbert said.

But can Colbert really be legally barred from portraying a version of himself?

“I do think that they could stop him from using it as a character to the extent that he’s saying it’s the same character that was on Comedy Central,” Jeremiah Reynolds, partner at Kinsella, Weitzman, Iser, Kump & Aldisert. told TheWrap.

Reynolds said that the other company (presumably, Comedy Central — Colbert didn’t specify on Wednesday’s episode) could make a claim of copyright infringement, though it might be easier to take on Colbert himself for breach of contract.

“Let’s say that he agreed in his contract with Comedy Central, ‘I will never, ever perform this character of Stephen Colbert outside of Comedy Central.’ Now that’s an easier claim for them to make, because all they have to prove in that instance is that it’s the same character,” Reynolds said.

CBS isn’t bound by the strictures of Colbert’s Comedy Central contract. So, were Comedy Central to go after CBS, Reynolds said, “They’d have to make some sort of copyright claim. They’d have to allege that it’s the identical character, and that character can be copyrighted, and that’s a tougher standard.”

Given the ties between CBS and Comedy Central — they both ultimately fall under Sumner Redstone’s media empire — Reynolds finds it highly unlikely that the two outlets would do legal battle with each other.

“It would be a huge embarrassment for sister companies to sue each other,” Reynolds said. “I can’t imagine that [CBS Corporation CEO] Les Moonves would ever let it get to that point.”

As a workaround to his legal encumbrance, Colbert introduced yet another iteration of himself on Wednesday’s “Late Show” — Stephen Colbert‘s “identical twin cousin” also named, yup, Stephen Colbert. Colbert 3.0 seemed to act and think an awful lot like the Colbert of the “Colbert Report” years, who was a spoof of conservative pundits a la Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly.

Reynolds said that the new-ish persona could offer Colbert a level of protection, as “The courts really provide tremendous protection for parody.”

“It’s two levels of parody,” Reynolds offered. “Now he’s doing a parody of a parody. He’s doing a parody of this other character. So I think he’s got a couple of different arguments.”

“I think they’d have a really hard time stopping him from acting in the manner of a parody of a right-wing talk-show host,” Reynolds added. “I think a court would find that too generalized to be protectable.”


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