O'Brien had plenty to say about the prospect of his being unable to retain intellectual property rights for some of the material he created at NBC. "Isn't it great to live in a country where a cigar-smoking dog puppet and a bear that masturbates are considered 'intellectual property?'" he joked on the show Tuesday night.
If O'Brien creates a new show on another network, he purportedly won't be allowed to bring some of his best-known bits and characters, such as Triumph the Insult Comic and the Masturbating Bear, among others, with him.
The characters and sketches, according to the Hollywood Reporter, are intellectual property that belongs to NBC, and the network doesn't plan to give them up.
But history may be on O'Brien's side. NBC threatened legal action against David Letterman after the late-night TV veteran moved to CBS in 1993 and began using characters and sketches from his old NBC show. Letterman eventually dropped some of his staples and changed the names of others, according to the Hollywood Reporter, but his classic "Top 10 List" survived.
"It was a wash," New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta told ABCNews.com. "At some point, you make a decision [and say], 'I've got to cut my losses here and make this go away,' and that's what happened to Letterman. NBC finally said, 'Make this go away … it doesn't help us.'"
All eyes have been on O'Brien after the former "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" host rejected a plan by NBC to move the "Tonight Show" to 12:05 a.m. to make room for an 11:35 show hosted by former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno.
Leno's own 10 p.m. show, "The Jay Leno Show," was canceled after flagging ratings and complaints from local affiliates that the show provided a weak lead-in to local newscasts. Viewership for O'Brien's own show, until recently, was also down sharply compared to the days when Leno hosted.
Leno and O'Brien have both taken shots at NBC and, in some cases, at each other since NBC announced its late-night shuffle. But it has been O'Brien's bitterly comic jabs at the peacock network -- Tuesday night, O'Brien went bilingual in his attacks, saying in Spanish that "NBC is run by brainless sons of goats who eat money and crap trouble" -- that seem to have driven his ratings higher and encouraged passionate fans, including hundreds who held rallies in four U.S. cities earlier this week in support of the host many refer to by the nickname "CoCo."
NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker defended the network's decision to shift Leno back into the 11:35 p.m. time slot he held for 17 years before O'Brien took over "The Tonight Show."
"From a financial standpoint, this is the right move," Zucker said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "We didn't want to do it, because we wanted to keep Conan. But we're going to be fine, even paying Conan to go away."
He told the newspaper he was surprised at the "nasty" turn the shake-up had taken.
"We were not surprised that Conan was disappointed in having his show back up a half hour. But we were very surprised and disappointed at how nasty it turned," he said.
According to O'Brien's camp, the latest drama between O'Brien and NBC revolved around stalled negotiations over O'Brien's exit package and how much his staff of about 200 people would be compensated after the show ends.