Best of 2007: Litigation guy

First posted on March 18, 2007.

Carol Burnett has sued 20th Century Fox television, makers of the “Family Guy” sitcom on Fox, for taking her 1970’s “charwoman” character and dragging her into a distasteful muck:

10 Years of LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®
10 Years of LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®

The episode in question refers to Burnett by name as working as a part-time janitor, and depicts her “charwoman” character — complete with trademark blue bonnet and mop bucket — cleaning the floor of a pornography shop, the suit says.

Another character then makes a vulgar reference to the signature ear tug used by Burnett at the close of her variety show each week, according to the lawsuit.

The studio is claiming it’s a parody, and it may be right:

“‘Family Guy,’ like the ‘Carol Burnett Show,’ is famous for its pop culture parodies and satirical jabs at celebrities,” the studio said in a statement. “We are surprised that Ms. Burnett, who has made a career of spoofing others on television, would go so far as to sue ‘Family Guy’ for a simple bit of comedy.”

Well, no. Not “like the ‘Carol Burnett Show.’” But perhaps legally defensible as a parody nonetheless, unlike most situations where defendants claim parody. Now,

Carol Burnett has gone up against big media before and won. Perhaps she’ll get lucky again. The complaint is here at the Smoking Gun. What the main reporting doesn’t focus on here is that she did proceed under California’s very celebrity-friendly right of publicity statute, very well discussed here.

So will Carol win? It’s hard to imagine Fox climbing down from its refusal to pull the episode, or agreeing to a precedent that an upset celebrity can make them withdraw an episode merely by complaining or suing. So an early settlement seems unlikely. Still, we’ve said that before, and seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say, “So long.”

UPDATE: Oh, one more thing. That link to the Smoking Gun above also has the offending video, reminding us of the Golden Rule for advising clients in cases like this, namely that the best way to make sure that the defamatory or scurrilous or offensive content that brought you to my office is repeated and gets as much attention as possible is to file a lawsuit about it.

LIKELIHOOD OF REFLECTION: My twin, separated at birth, Ben Manevitz analyzes it; Phillip Baron weighs in, too, with support of the Golden Rule.  And then there’s Nieporent.

LATTER-DAY UPDATE:  Sorry, Carol!

NB:  Pretty interesting comments at the original March 2005 post.

Ron Coleman

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