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Columbo’s First Name and The Supreme Court  - The “Philip Columbo” Story

Columbo’s first name was the subject of a $300 million lawsuit, in the 1980s, that was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Here’s the story.

Fred L. Worth, a former air traffic controller from Sacramento, California, wrote a book called “The Trivia Encyclopedia”, published in 1974. The book was followed by “The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia” in 1977, a big success which led to additional “Super Trivia” books including “Super Trivia, vol. II” in 1981. Fred was convinced that trivia was about to become a boom industry, and he wanted to protect the work that he had assembled. However, he realized that no one can “own” facts of public record – he could only try to claim rights to the form of his own compilation.

Fred got an idea. He was inspired by an old map-makers trick -- because no one can “own” objective geographical facts, map companies often insert fictitious lakes and roads, in obscure places, so that if another map company copies their work, it can be proven. With this in mind, Fred figured that if he intentionally inserted a totally false item of trivia in his book, then if someone copied from him, Fred would be able to prove that his work was stolen.

Years later, Fred stated that he tried to market the idea of a trivia board game when his books were first written, but “Nobody was interested, then.”

Trivia began to take off as a hobby and in common conversation, and soon a board game was released, called “Trivial Pursuit”. The game was a blockbuster hit, generating sales volume of over $256 million by the end of 1984.

Fred Worth thought that the material on the “Trivial Pursuit” cards looked awfully familiar. After review and comparison, he claimed that about a third of the material in "Trivial Pursuit” was directly lifted from his book, "Super Trivia”.

Fred decided to sue for copyright infringement. He thought he had a secret weapon, which turned out to be -- Columbo’s first name. Or rather, Columbo’s lack of a genuine first name.

In “Super Trivia”, Fred had included the statement that Columbo’s first name was “Philip”. This assertion was completely invented by Fred, for no purpose except to trap potential copycats.

On October 23, 1984, Fred filed a lawsuit in the federal district court for Southern California, against the “Trivial Pursuit” inventors, John and Chris Haney, Ed Werner, and Scott Abbott, and against the game’s US and Canadian distributors, Selchow & Righter and Horn Abbott Ltd. The suit claimed $300 million in damages.

Fred’s lawyers proclaimed that “Trivial Pursuit” had substantially pirated material from “Super Trivia” and other books by Fred Worth, even to the point of copying typographical errors and mis-prints from Fred’s work.  They said that Fred had a crucial piece of evidence – a fake trivia answer, which Fred had made up in order to thwart anyone who violated his copyright. But Fred and his lawyers, at first, strategically refused to divulge the secret answer.

''I only have  one  fact  that  is not true,'' Fred Worth said in a telephone interview.  ''I made it up so I would know if anyone ever used my books.'' He declined to disclose the fact, saying he needed to keep it a secret in order to trap others who might use his information.

Finally, Fred’s secret weapon was revealed -- “Trivial Pursuit” had a game card which claimed that Columbo’s first name was “Philip”. The game makers could not have taken this information from any source except Fred Worth’s book, because the name Philip Columbo had been fabricated by Fred himself.

The “Trivial Pursuit” defendants admitted that they had copied from Fred Worth’s book, but they claimed that they had also copied from many other sources. There’s a saying in academia: “When you copy from one source, it’s called plagiarism; when you copy from many sources, it’s called research.”

Fred’s case was thrown out of court by Judge Wm Matthew Byrne, Jr, without coming to trial. In 1987, the dismissal was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which declared that the game “Trivial Pursuit” was “substantially different” from the book “Super Trivia”. Fred’s lawyers appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but on March 28, 1988, the high court rejected their petition.

Fred Worth’s invention of “Philip Columbo” had failed as a legal ploy. And yet, his influence persists to this day, long after “Trivial Pursuit” removed the offending question from the game. 

In “The Cop Cookbook” (a collection of recipes by famous TV detectives, with proceeds going to police widows), Peter Falk’s recipe for pumpkin lasagna (not chili!) is accompanied by a reference to his television character -- “Philip Columbo”.  In a web site devoted to the show “Mrs Columbo” (which, like the “Columbo” series, never revealed the Lieutenant’s first name), there are mentions of Kate Columbo’s husband by his supposed first name, “Philip”. Other “Columbo” web sites refer to “Philip Columbo”, or claim that the first name Philip was used in the stage version of  “Prescription: Murder” (not true). A Peugeot advertisement claims that the world’s most famous Peugeot convertible driver is “Lt Philip Columbo”. Various newspapers have run “trivia” columns and contests, alleging that Columbo’s first name is Philip. In newsgroups around the internet, and in emails to this web site, we continue to see posts from fans who insist that Columbo’s first name is “Philip” – they’re not quite sure where they heard it, but they “know it for a fact”.

And so, Fred Worth’s prank has passed into legend, and is an enduring part of the “Columbo” legacy.

For more information on Columbo's first Names see Lt. First Name

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