Publice appearance by Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog

Conan O’Brien and NBC Universal finally reached an agreement that will allow the talk show host to depart The Tonight Show. The fate of a number of beloved characters created by the comedian and his staff, however, is less certain.

NBC agreed to a deal under which O’Brien is to receive $32.5 million for the remaining two-and-a-half years on his contract, with an additional $12 million to settle the contracts of his staff, including $4.5 million to longtime executive producer Jeff Ross.

While clearly there was a great deal of money at stake in these negotiations, fans were perhaps most concerned about their favorite characters.

NBC has stated that it will retain the rights to many of Mr. O’Brien’s characters including, Pimpbot 5000, Conando, and of course, the Masturbating Bear.

There is slightly more controversy over who owns the rights to Mr. O’Brien’s most popular (and infamous) character, Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. It is unclear who owns the rights to Triumph because the character was created by O’Brien’s former writer and longtime friend Robert Smigel before he was employed as a writer for NBC. Triumph’s official website is run by Warner Records, producer of Triumph’s album, Come Poop With Me. NBC claims that it co-owns the rights to Triumph with Smigel.

Happily, however, for those who side with O’Brien in his battle with NBC, it has been reported that the theme music accompanying several characters is outside NBC’s grasp. Max Weinberg and Jimmy Vivino, members of O’Brien’s house band took out copyrights in 2004 for the music that is played during appearances by Pimpbot 5000 and the Masturbating Bear, as well as music for recurring sketches like “In the Year 3000.”

Commentators generally believe that the agreement was a good deal for Mr. O’Brien because it is not immediately clear that the characters will be valuable to NBC in any way. The characters are so tied to O’Brien himself that it would be difficult to envision NBC using them with another host. Bassam Ibrahim, an IP lawyer with Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney agreed, saying that the only reason for NBC to keep the characters would be to prevent O’Brien from using them to compete with Jay Leno on another network.

Ibrahim also said that Conan might be able to do make an end run around the agreement by subtly changing his characters in order to avoid a copyright violation. He could take a page from David Letterman who tweaked characters he was contractually obligated to leave behind.

In the end, however, it seems that both O’Brien and NBC should start with a clean slate. Using Mr. O’Brien’s characters on a different show or with a different host will simply remind people of a controversy in which many saw NBC as the bad guy. It would create even greater fan backlash against the network. And while Mr. O’Brien could use similar characters, his image would also be served best by moving on. O’Brien needs to demonstrate that he can draw an audience while not engaged in a controversial contract battle, and that his comic genius extends beyond the characters he and his staff created for NBC.

There have been a number of rumors about where Mr. O’Brien and his comic team will land next. For now, though, one thing seems certain: wherever he goes next, many of his popular characters will remain behind.

Jeremy Francis

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