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Tart humor gets its day in court

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This summer, threats to freedom of expression are mobilizing First Amendment lawyers and comedians concerned about the right to criticize - and be funny about it.

Topping their list is a lawsuit filed this month by the Fox News Network against political satirist Al Franken and his publisher, Penguin. The charge: that Mr. Franken is violating the network's trademark on the phrase "fair and balanced" by using it in the title of a book being rushed to stores this week: "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."

Fox won't comment on the pending proceedings - oral arguments in the case are expected to be held Friday. But in legal documents, the network argues that the use of its trademark - along with similarities to the covers of books by Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly, who is also featured on Franken's cover - might lead people to believe the book is a Fox product. [Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated the day oral arguments were expected to begin in the lawsuit filed by Fox News Network against Al Franken and his publisher.]

Those who find the lawsuit frivolous and an infringement on free speech include The Wall Street Journal and The Authors Guild. And legal observers say this case - and one earlier this summer involving director Spike Lee and a new cable channel "Spike TV" - contribute to the perception that intellectual property cases are getting out of hand.

Aggressive policing of copyrights and trademarks has increased in recent years, as has successful lobbying for more laws. The Internet is partially to blame, with companies trying to limit unauthorized use of items like images and songs. The result, say observers, is an environment where free speech and cultural expression are inhibited.

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