Carol Burnett v. Family Guy

This is a pretty funny lawsuit. Family Guy used Carol Burnett’s likeness (well, a cartoon depiction of her “Charwoman” character) in one of its episodes. The depiction shows Charwoman working as the janitor in an adult bookstore. She is shown mopping the floor next to a bin full of blow-up-dolls. She also apparently freaked out because Joe tells the other guys that when Carol tugged her ear at the end of her show, she was really saying good-night to her mom. Then Quagmire says “I wonder what she tugged to say good night to her dad! Oh! Giggity Giggitty!”

The suit seeks $6 million in damages for misappropriation of her name and likeness and violating her publicity rights.

The Smoking Gun has a longer article and the complaint. The video is posted there too, so at least go watch the video. Here is another article on it from E online.

This is not only interesting, but will give you a good preview of some of the right of publicity issues we will be covering later in the course.

What do you think? Should we send Carol Burnett’s lawyers your class notes from when we discussed Campbell v. Acuff Rose?

My opinion: Ms. Burnett’s lawsuit is doomed and it should be.

Why it is doomed:

Family Guy’s portrayal is protected by the doctrine of Fair Use. In the copyright context, this is well established by Campbell v. Acuff Rose. In the trademark context, it is somewhat less developed, but the principles are the same.

Why it should be:

This is a cornerstone of free expression. Whether you like Family Guy or not, the First Amendment protects your right to criticize, parody, and ridicule. Yes, even if the subject of that parody or ridicule does not particularly care for the result. Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, while not a copyright case, illustrates the principles at play. In that case, Jerry Falwell (a minister no less) was portrayed in a fake Campari ad as having had sex with his mother in an outhouse. Not surprisingly, this offended him. He sued for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected this parody.

In the Burnett v. Family Guy case, Burnett is attempting to make an end run around the First Amendment values that Hustler v. Falwell protects.

Therefore, not only will her suit fail, but no matter how much you like Carol Burnett or hate Family Guy, that failure should be embraced as a victory for all of us, because a contrary result would be a terrible dimunition of all of our Constitutional rights.

I don’t just think that Family Guy wins. If I represented Family Guy, I’d have already sent a Rule 11 letter and a Rule 68 offer for a few pennies of nuisance money. I’m disgusted with any attorney who would sign this piece of trash litigation.

Oh, and for the record, I love Family Guy. I was ambivalent about Carol Burnett, but now I call her a no-class hack.

5 Responses to Carol Burnett v. Family Guy

  1. […] My initial blog entry on this case from March 17. […]

  2. cayennem says:

    I guess times are hard for Carol and she needed the money. Also they did not make her look as bad like other programs. South Park makes everyone look bad.

  3. bboy84 says:

    I like The Family Guy and I am not personally offended, but I seem to always ask myself, “How far can a parody go before bad taste turns into identity assassination?” I do not consider myself a liberal or conservative, but to me it seems that the media industry keeps making money off of spoofs regarding celebrities. For example, the Hustler comment about Jerry Falwell having sex with his mother in the outhouse was a direct attack on Faldwell’s criticism of Hustler’s portrayal of women. This personal vendeta between Flyntt and Falwell was mutually beneficial to both of their businesses. Flyntt received publicity beyond his wildest dreams resulting in an assassination attempt. Falwell had a new cause to champion to the little old ladies in an atempt to snag more social security money. The First Amendment suit was nothing more than a side show to most Americans, not, I would argue, the modern definition of what freedom of speech is. My point is simply this: Why are we not using our First Amendment rights to question this lousy government that put us into another war with a third-world country that could not defeat a fly on a camel’s ass? I don’t know what to call myself except a pissed off American who feels that the middle class in this country is being sold down the toilet by special interest groups and sorry ass politicians who do not even try to hide the fact that they only vote when the pork is flying to their district. I just want to know when Americans are going to use their First Amendment rights for real issues other than to block lawsuits.

    I feel that I better reassert that I believe that anyone should have a right to say whatever they think whereever they feel like it, but I would really like to see people use their First Amendment rights to attempt to make our world better instead of hiding behind it after they make a stupid ass comment. This is the conundrum, tolerating dumb ass comment and thank God that we can make them. If you are an atheist disregard the last sentance.

    Chris Brown

  4. […] Campbell v. Acuff-Rose anymore? Parodies are often stupid, often hurtful (just ask Carol Burnett here and here). That’s the point. Parodies need a […]

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