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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.


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