In 1916, 26-year-old Charlie Chaplin was a huge star. His movies were immensely successful, his characters were instantly recognizable, and he signed a contract with Mutual Film Corporation for an enormous $670,000 annual salary. Hoping to capitalize on Chaplin’s fame and popularity, other actors began copying his now-iconic Tramp costume and mannerisms. Billy West, a vaudeville actor, mimicked Chaplin’s Tramp character in 24 films. But after West moved on to other projects, the production company that financed these films had to find another Chaplin impersonator.
So, Sanford Productions chose an actor named Charles Amador. In 1920, Amador starred in a film called The Race Track, in which he dressed up as the Tramp (in identical costume and makeup), copied Chaplin’s mannerisms, and recreated his physical comedy routines. The Race Track itself was a blatant rip-off of Chaplin’s earlier film Kid Auto Races At Venice. Unlike Billy West’s earlier impersonation, in which he copied Chaplin but was billed as Billy West, Amador was billed as “Charlie Aplin.” Once the producers tried to pawn off Amador as “Charlie Aplin” for a screening for film distributors in New York, the real Chaplin filed a lawsuit against Amador.
In front of a California judge, Amador and Sanford Productions agreed that they would stop using the name Charlie Aplin because it was so confusingly similar to the name Charlie Chaplin. However, their lawyers stated that Amador should be able to continue impersonating Chaplin. Arguing that Chaplin had borrowed parts of the Tramp character (costume, makeup, mannerisms) from other comedians over the years, the lawyers asserted that Chaplin himself did not own the character.
Chaplin conceded that other comedians wore big shoes, baggy pants, little hats, or a small mustache, but he combined those characteristics with certain physical movements (a duck walk, grimaces) to create a character with a unique attitude and personality. Chaplin testified that the public would be misled by Amador’s similar clothes and makeup, stating that he received many letters from people who bought tickets to a movie thinking that they would be seeing a Chaplin movie, not a movie starring a different actor.
On July 11, 1925, the Superior Court of the State of California ruled in favor of Charlie Chaplin, calling Amador’s actions fraudulent and deceptive. The court also ordered that The Race Track film negatives be destroyed. Amador and his lawyers appealed the decision, and in the summer of 1928, the California District Court of Appeal again ruled in favor of Chaplin. After another appeal, the Supreme Court declined to take the case on September 27, 1928, cementing Chaplin’s legal victory.
Chaplin v. Amador established a legal precedent that because Chaplin was the first person to portray his character on film, his character’s performance style was his intellectual property. Although Chaplin v. Amador was not the first trademark case of its kind, it was important in setting a precedent for protecting the creators of unique work or personas against unfair business competition. Sixty years later in a similar case, singer Bette Midler successfully sued Ford Motor Company for using the vocals of a Bette Midler impersonator in their car commercials. Midler’s voice, the court ruled, is a distinctive and recognizable part of her image, so it is illegal to imitate that voice without consent because it was "fraudulent and deceptive."