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Real-Life Cowboy Wins Decades-Old Battle With Television Industry

September 25, 1991

NORTH SCITUATE, R.I. (AP) _ For the past four decades, 83-year-old Victor DeCosta has been living out the Wild West fantasies of his youth as Paladin, a black-clad cowboy and gun for hire.

Now he has won his fiercest duel yet - a 34-year legal battle with the television industry that usurped his identity.

A federal jury determined Monday that Viacom International, a former CBS subsidiary, deliberately infringed upon DeCosta’s trademark by airing ″Have Gun, Will Travel,″ the 1950s series based, without DeCosta’s permission, on the mustachioed, quick-draw persona he created.

The jury awarded him $3.5 million.

DeCosta, wearing his signature black hat and giant silver belt buckle, was pitted in federal court against lawyers in suits who for a week and a half talked of trademarks and copyrights. The award followed 2 1/2 days of jury deliberations.

″The money to me is secondary at my age,″ said DeCosta. ″I just wanted to get justice. I’m a stubborn old man. When I own something, I don’t allow nobody to steal it.″

He says vindication will be complete when the series is shelved and TV viewers never again see the show that’s branded him a ″phony and impostor″ in the eyes of his audience.

″Even today, people think I’m copying a TV series,″ said DeCosta, who still makes appearances as Paladin, Have Gun, Will Travel.

The resemblance between DeCosta and the late Richard Boone, who played Paladin on television, was so close the TV character even handed out Paladin business cards like DeCosta.

U.S. District Judge Ernest C. Torres was to decide Friday whether to prohibit Viacom from distributing the series, which ran from 1957-1964 and has aired in syndication ever since.

Viacom spokeswoman Hilary Condit said the company doesn’t comment on litigation.

As a youth, DeCosta left his New Bedford, Mass., home and headed for Texas where he learned to bust broncos and became a quick-draw sharpshooter. He worked as a rodeo rider in the 1930s.

DeCosta became Paladin in 1947, when Italian immigrants in Rhode Island saw him on his stallion and dubbed him ″Paladino.″

He said he was shocked when strangers told him in 1957 that they’d seen him on television.

DeCosta won a federal lawsuit in Providence in 1966 that claimed CBS stole the Paladin character, but the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, saying DeCosta’s calling cards failed to qualify for copyright protection.

In a retrial, a federal magistrate found CBS had infringed on DeCosta’s creation. But CBS won on appeal again.

In 1977, DeCosta received a federal registered trademark for Paladin, but Viacom continued to air the series.

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