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The Name Game: Making sense of IP and the pro wrestling business

Broken hardys

Written by Steve Te Tai for F4WOnline.com

Recent years have seen the subject of IP as a hot topic again with several situations involving wrestlers moving through different promotions including Cody Rhodes, Hornswoggle, Ryback, El Cuervo, and the Bullet Club among others, and of course "Broken" Matt Hardy & Brother Nero. In the majority of these situations, names are changed which means we get Cody, Swoggle, the Big Guy, Phantasma Jr, the Club, and the old Hardy Boyz instead of the more updated version. 

Fans have become largely accustomed to this process ever since Vince McMahon and WWE standardized this concept. Occasionally, situations arise that puzzle or frustrate the fans such as when Rhodes found himself unable to use his famous wrestling last name despite his father being the legendary Dusty Rhodes and his brother Dustin wrestling for decades as members of the Rhodes family.

Unfortunately for Cody, his first official wrestling match was for OVW, the then-territorial system for the WWF/E, which made the name “Cody Rhodes” the IP of WWE.

To see how this started, you have to go back to the 1980s where McMahon normalized the practice of a wrestling promotion creating new names for their wrestlers. For decades prior, wrestlers created their own personas and nicknames and and like any actor or athlete, your name went with you. But as the 80s progressed, wrestlers joining the WWF saw their names change more and more.

When Curt Hennig was brought in, he became Mr. Perfect, the Dingo Warrior became the Ultimate Warrior, the Sheepherders became the Bushwhackers, Big Bubba Rogers became the Big Boss Man, and so on. 

As the decade ended, it was almost a given that if you joined WWF, you would be given a new name. But what this change really meant for the industry wouldn’t be understood until years later when the Ultimate Warrior left and found he was no longer the Ultimate Warrior.

McMahon started this practice for two main reasons. The first was to distinguish the WWF as a world separate and different from the rest of the wrestling community. The second was by creating new names for these wrestlers, the names were legally the intellectual property of the WWF, which gave them exclusive rights to license and merchandise their character.

The name “The Ultimate Warrior” was the IP of the WWF because ultimately usage comes down to when it was done first, and with that legal reality, the Ultimate Warrior re-named himself Warrior in his WCW run. His look and “Warrior” name were established prior to his WWF run, so he had all rights to that sans the “Ultimate” part.

The wrestling world began to understand the new reality that with any talent movement between these major wrestling promotions, a name created and debuted in one organization was the intellectual property of that organization and would not go with them if they left.

The difference with real names

If it’s your real name, you own it which is what makes the sports world a lot simpler. Kevin Durant didn’t have to change his name when he joined Golden State and Chael Sonnen didn’t become Chael P. when he signed with Bellator. Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Jeff Jarrett, Jerry Lawler, Bobby Roode, and many more wrestled under their real names, so name ownership was never an issue with them.

What about CM Punk, AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, and Sting? 

They used those names from the starts of their careers prior to joining a major wrestling promotion. As long as you use the name once prior to joining a “publishing house” like New Japan, WWF or GFW, the name belongs to you. If you keep that name depends on the deal they make with their new home. Sometimes you get to stay as Shinsuke Nakamura while other times, you end up as Hideo Itami. 

If New Japan owns the Bullet Club, how did they keep that name in GFW and ROH?  

The Bullet Club was born in NJPW and therefore, NJPW owns and controls the rights to that name. Like GFW, New Japan has had working partnerships with multiple promotions over the years and woud allow these partners to use their IP. That's why Big Van Vader competed in WCW but when New Japan’s partnership with WCW ended, he simply became Vader.

Because of this partnership, when Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows wrestled for GFW and ROH, they were the Bullet Club. But since there was no such deal with the WWE, Doc and Karl hooked up with AJ Styles as simply The Club. 

But didn’t Finn Balor create the Bullet Club?  

When Balor was in NJPW as Prince Devitt, he indeed was the face of the Bullet Club and was their first leader, spokesman and architect of the group that still exists to this day. One could say creatively he may have been the prime driving force along with Gedo, the head of NJPW creative. Regardless of who all played a part in the creation of this character, it was created and debuted in New Japan and is therefore their IP.  

*******

Before I joined the wrestling industry many years ago, I worked in the comic book industry and and always appreciated the similarities to wrestling in how comics also operate as a roster of characters controlled by creative who receive pushes, gimmick changes, and sell merch with ongoing storylines told episodically in a “universe”. And when it comes to the legal ownership of characters, wrestling and comics have even more in common.

Marvel continues to churn out movies, TV, licensing, merchandise, comics, and cartoons, from the Spider-Man character. And what many people are aware of is Spider-Man was created by Stan Lee along with artist Steve Ditko and others playeing their part as well. But even with Lee publicly acknowledged as the creator of this character, Spider-Man is still the IP of Marvel, because he was created for Marvel while working at Marvel. 

So, no matter who creates, designs, and writes a character under Marvel, DC, or anybody, the company always owns that character. And if there was any dispute, a 2013 court case re-affirmed that the creator is irrelevant as far as ownership and rights.

Lee is constantly credited with the creation of these characters and is lauded and heralded by Marvel as such, given a lifetime ambassador job with a hefty salary. But, it does not change the fact that he never owned these characters, Marvel did.

What about the Superman case?

The key difference between Superman and other characters is that Jerry Siegel & Joe Schuster actually created Superman before he debuted in DC. Back in the 1930s, these two sold the character to DC Comics. In a weird sense, Superman is to comics what CM Punk or AJ Styles is to WWE where the name was created before he joined the company.

With ongoing public situations like the Hardys' Broken characters, it can be frustrating to wrestling fans to see talent switch to a new company and no longer be identified by their favorite names. For better or for worse, this is the reality that wrestling adopted in the 80s by McMahon and is the standard for how wrestling operates to this day.