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Stranger than fiction


NBC is getting a lot of press for an episode of its new comic book saga "Heroes," but it's probably not the kind of publicity the network likes.

"Heroes"--for anyone who's missed it--is about regular people who suddenly develop extraordinary powers, such as the ability to fly, read other people's thoughts or know when other countries are hiding weapons of mass destruction.

For the second week of October, "Heroes" was the seventh most popular show on broadcast TV among 18 to 49-year-olds, seen by 7.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The episode in question was the show's pilot, in which a cheerleader character, who discovers she's indestructible, mangles her hand in a garbage disposal. (It's temporary; the hand regenerates itself.) A shot of the sink briefly shows the disposal's brand--InSinkErator--and hence the trouble.

It took all of two weeks for Emerson Electric Co., InSinkErator's maker, to sue NBC Universal Inc. for defamation for suggesting the appliance's design is dangerous. Emerson wants an order blocking reruns of the episode and forcing NBC to delete the InSinkErator trademark, along with unspecified damages.

It is interesting--and surely a coincidence--that the disposal in the scene is not one of those made by General Electric Co., NBC's parent.

Still, can Emerson be serious about suing over a two-second shot in a fictional TV series? Does Emerson want us to believe that you can't injure your hand by sticking it in a garbage disposal? Would anyone have even noticed that the disposal was an InSinkErator if Emerson hadn't made a point of it?

Unfortunately, Emerson appears to be serious.

There are certainly situations when companies are right to be serious about product disparagement or trademark dilution. Competitors spreading false rumors about your product deserve to be confronted. Manufacturers are justified in going after pirates selling cheap knock-offs of their goods.

Companies tread closer to a constitutional line protecting free expression when they sue publishers over product reviews. In a widely reported case in the 1990s, Suzuki Motor Corp. sued the publisher of Consumer Reports over safety tests that led to a negative review of Suzuki's Samurai sport utility vehicle. Years of legal wrangling ended in a settlement in which Consumer Reports paid nothing (except, presumably, big legal bills).

Once you move beyond the marginal disparagement cases, though, you get to the plain ridiculous ones. Like Emerson's. Not only is the glimpse of its brand in the NBC show fleeting and inconsequential to the plot, but--as others have pointed out--it's fiction.

You can only imagine the cases that might have clogged the courts if everyone were as touchy about fiction as Emerson:

  • City of Atlanta vs. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., a 1939 case in which Atlanta charges that the film "Gone With The Wind" depicts the city burned to the ground, damaging its reputation as a nice place to visit.

  • Ham Processors' Federation vs. Harper Lee, a dispute over a passage in the author's book "To Kill a Mockingbird" in which the girl, Scout, is attacked by a vengeful madman while walking home from a school play still dressed as a ham shank. Plaintiffs charge the passage misrepresents ham as harmful to children. Ms. Lee counters that her longstanding friendship with author Truman Capote shows she is not unkindly disposed towards ham.

  • National Rifle Assn. vs. Walt Disney Productions, a dispute over the animated movie "Bambi" in which the NRA claims that Disney maliciously casts hunters in negative light by showing them killing Bambi's mother. The suit does not seek monetary damages, but asks the court to order Disney to re-edit the film to make it clear that actual deer don't think like people, don't talk and don't make friends with baby rabbits.

While Emerson's lawyers are at it, they might want to take another look at the 1977 film "Rolling Thunder," in which a Vietnam veteran is attacked in his home by thugs who force his hand down a garbage disposal. It could have been an InSinkErator, and there might be some way around the statute of limitations.

Or, Emerson could just thank NBC for reminding people that they should only put food scraps in the disposal.