I know that many copyright professors use Titan Sports v. Turner (981 F. Supp. 65 (D. Conn. 1997)) to teach the law of character protection. The plaintiff’s amended complaint “explain[ed] how the [wrestler] Diesel[‘s] character developed into a fully independent character and ultimately became integral to the story lines of many televised events,” arguing that Diesel was the property of the league and not the wrestler who played him. I find the case a fascinating foreshadowing of today’s reality TV industry, given the blurry boundary between life and art in pro-wrestling. Might Jersey Shore producers and editors argue they essentially created the character Snooki, via a montage of carefully selected clips? Consider the video evidence.
In any case, for those looking for “color commentary” on the world of pro-wrestling, here’s a take from the WSJ’s Thomas Frank:
Programs from the company’s 1990s heyday seemed to dwell on the awesome and arbitrary power of the wealthy, on the ability of bosses, even when motivated by nothing deeper than pique, to injure or deprive or humiliate their employees. Usually the boss in question was Vince McMahon . . . . In real life he is the WWE’s majority owner, but on TV he was a character in its long-running soap opera, playing the poltroonish boss, “Mr. McMahon.” His character was a bully, an arrogant blowhard who alternately boasted and trembled, threatened and cringed. . . . Audiences hated him, of course.
The company’s great star in those days, meanwhile, was the beer-guzzling proletarian antihero, “Stone Cold Steve Austin,” a self-described “redneck” who dressed in denim and camouflage and refused to conform to the demands of the corporation. For years he warred against the tyrannical “Mr. McMahon,” threatening him, pummeling him, showing up on one occasion in a cement truck to fill the rich man’s convertible Corvette with concrete. “Stone Cold will never be employee of the month,” the announcer yelled after watching one bout between the wrestler and the boss.
In his book Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges provides some historical perspective on pro-wrestling characters:
[From the 1950s to the 1980s,] communism and crude, racial stereotypes stoked the crowd. The bouts…were raw, unvarnished expressions of the prejudices of the white working class. . . . But that hatred, once directed outward, has turned inward. . . . The growing class division and hopelessness triggered a mounting rage toward the elite [as] communities began to crumble.
The story line in professional wrestling evolved to fit the new era. It began to focus on the petty, cruel, psychological dramas and family dysfunction that come with social breakdown. . . .The referee, the only authority figure in the bouts, is easily distracted and unable to administer justice. . . . The failure to enforce the rules, which usually hurts the wrestler who needs the rules the most, is vital to the story line. . . .Wrestling operates from the popular . . . assumption that those in authority are sleazy.
Like the Balinese cockfight, wrestling served to “build a symbolic structure” representing the decline of “red families” chronicled in so many studies. And now one of the persons most enriched by it stands ready to vent the anger of its fans at reckless elites, while assiduously succoring them behind the scenes.