Litigation guy

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:

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 they 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!

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Author:Ron Coleman

I write this blog.

5 Responses to “Litigation guy”

  1. Lizard
    March 21, 2007 at 11:58 am #

    She was barely funny in the 70’s. Mama’s Family was unwatchable. Must be desperate attempts to retire a little better off.

  2. March 22, 2007 at 5:33 pm #

    Is it “parody”? Or “satire”? Aren’t you the one of the many attorneys who holds that there is a legitimate distinction between the two? You think that “Yiddish With Dick and Jane” is an infringement, but you then hold that Family Guy might have a defense here??

    After all, its a “pretty clear divide” for you, right?

    What about the recent re-working of the Apple ad featuring Hillary Clinton. Is that a parody (satire?) in your eyes? If not, would you proclaim it to be copyright infringement? I don’t mean to single you out Ron, but I still beleive that you need to rethink that enitre aspect of copyright law. It makes no sense – even if the legal community insists that it does.

  3. March 26, 2007 at 8:45 pm #

    I think it makes “sense” in the sense, Justin, that there are lines that are fairly arbitrary policy decisions but which, I think, are discernable in terms of predictability.

    Yiddish with Dick and Jane” was an infringement because there is a copyright in a book. I’m not saying that’s how it ought to be, but it is a coherent rule. Same thing as the “Cat Not in the Hat,” but hey — I am actually inclined like you, Justin. I would change that rule.

    Is there a copyright in an ear tug? I don’t think so, but even if there were — and perhaps there is one in the character Carol Burnett created — this is a down-the-middle parody.

    The Hillary ad? Same thing as the “Priceless” decision involving Ralph Nader. Cleverly alluding to someone else’s creative work is not a copyright infringement.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Charwomen and butthead astronomers :: Waveflux - February 12, 2008

    […] I never get tired of that story; Sagan had a gas giant of an ego. Setting aside notions of relative sympathy, however, it’s hard to see how Burnett wins this case on copyright grounds. Parody has a pretty broad license, and the likelihood of confusion between the Family Guy treatment and Burnett’s mothballed routine isn’t very great. But this is why we have courts. […]

  2. LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION® » Blog Archive » Litigation Guy, updated - February 22, 2008

    […] Eleven months ago I wrote about Carol Burnett’s lawsuit against 20th Century Fox, based on a tasteless parody of her “signature” charwoman character. I worked so hard on that post and it looks so purty, I’m going to drop it in here again, which will also increase the suspense about the opinion in that case that just came down… uh, in June. […]