On April 23, 2006, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation aired an episode of “Family Guy” entitled “Peterotica.” In this episode, Peter Griffin, who was an Archie Bunker-like character, enters a porn shop with his friends and comments that the porn shop is cleaner than he expected. One of Peter’s friends explains that Carol Burnett works part-time as a janitor. At this point, an animated character resembling the “Charwoman” from the Carol Burnett Show appears mopping the floor near several blow-up dolls and a rack of “XXX” movies. At this point, a slightly modified version of Carol Burnett’s theme song is playing in the background. One of Peter’s friends remarks, “You know, when she tugged her ear at the end of the show, she was really saying good night to her mom.” Another friend responded, “I wonder what she tugged to say good night to her dad?”
Carol Burnett took this personally. She filed a suit for copyright infringement, unfair competition, violation of the right of publicity, and misappropriation of name and likeness in the United States District Court, Central District of California.
In responding to the action, defendants contended that even if the plaintiff possesses a valid copyright, the claim is barred by the doctrine of fair use. The court analyzed the fair use factors, including (a) the purpose and character of the work, (b) the nature of the copyrighted work, (c) the amount and substantiality of the amount used, and (d) the effect on the potential market. The fair use doctrine calls for a case-by-case analysis. See Campbell v. Acuff Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569 (1994).
In addressing the first factor, the court considered to what extent the new work is transformative. Parody is a form of transitive use and is defined as a “literary artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effort or ridicule, or is a composition in prose or verse in which the characteristic turns of thought and phrase or classes of authors are imitated in such a way to make them appear ridiculous.” After considering the arguments, the court concluded that the 18-second clip of the animated figure resembling the “Char woman,” mopping the floor next to the blow-up dolls, a rack of “XXX” movies, and video booths in a porn shop is clearly designed to imitate the style of an author or work for comic effort or ridicule. Family Guy put a cartoon version of Carol Burnett/Charwoman in an awkward, ridiculous, crude and absurd situation in order to lampoon and parody her as a public figure. In further analyzing fair use, the Court stated the Family Guy took just enough of the imaginary and accompanying theme music to make the crude depiction of the “Charwoman” character recognizable to the viewers. It noted that the market demand for the non-parodic use of the Charwoman would not be fulfilled by use that has the character in front of a blow up doll and XXX movies. Finally, the Court concluded that there was likelihood of confusion by the defendant’s use of the Char woman character and, thus, there was no basis for confusion or dilution.
The Court noted that Carol Burnett is an icon in American culture, as is her character the Charwoman. She is well respected and loved by a large sub-segment of American public based upon her persona and her outstandingly successful entertainment career. The Court stated, “Although debasing the Charwoman and making Ms. Burnett’s parents participants in a crude joke is disheartening, it does not mean she has a cause of action.” The Court dismissed the action concluding the law, as it must in an open society, provides broad protection for the defendant’s parodic segment.