Not Everybody Loves Raymond

Ray Romano (at last!) returns to the small screen – this time as “Hank Rizzoli”, a curmudgeonly photographer on NBC’s Parenthood.

But the role has created some controversy. Rizzoli Publications, a publishing house specializing in coffee-table books of art and photography, claims that the character infringes on its trademark rights to “Rizzoli”.

Rizzoli Publications is concerned that, given the character’s line of work, the public might mistakenly believe that Rizzoli Publications supplied or endorsed the goods and services featured in the TV show.

But because Parenthood is a creative work, it has broad First Amendment protection which may overcome the trademark claims. So the question will likely hinge on whether Parenthood misled viewers into believing Rizzoli Productions was somehow affiliated with the character or show.

When it comes to contested character names, NBC has been down this road before. Michael Costanza sued college friend Jerry Seinfeld for violating his privacy rights with the creation of George Costanza. In framing his case, Michael went so far as to admit that, like George, he too was bald, stocky, and nicknamed “Can’t stand ya.” As if Michael’s ego needed further blows, he lost the lawsuit.

Of course, the cost of any lawsuit – whether you win or lose—can be reason enough for producers to back off from the fight. Which is why some might pay a small fee to avoid the controversy.

NBC wouldn’t be first to explore that option. In its response to Rizzoli Publications’ cease-and-desist letter, NBC pointed to the TNT series Rizzoli and Isles to show that other folks had used the mark.

To which Rizzoli Publications responded, “Your reference … does not help your position, as the owner of that show arranged to pay our Clients for a non-exclusive license to use the Marks.”