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Judge dismisses lawsuit brought by actor Andy Griffith

It's a legal failure for the man who played the shrewd criminal defense attorney Matlock for nearly a decade on TV.

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by actor Andy Griffith, saying a Wisconsin man who changed his name to Andy Griffith and ran for sheriff in a southwestern Wisconsin country did not violate federal copyright or trademark laws.

The actor who played Sheriff Andy Taylor on the popular TV comedy "The Andy Griffith Show" in the 1960s, filed a lawsuit last year against William Harold Fenrick, who changed his name to Andy Griffith before unsuccessfully running for Grant County sheriff.

During the campaign, Griffith played up his name by comparing himself to the television sheriff who dispensed heartfelt wisdom in fictional rural North Carolina town of Mayberry. Denouncing law enforcement practices such as speed traps, he declared: "They never did unethical stuff like that in Mayberry!"

U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled Friday that the candidate did not violate federal trademark law because he did not use the Griffith name in a commercial transaction but instead "to seek elective office, fundamental First Amendment protected speech."

Voters did not believe the actor was running or sponsoring the candidate, Shabaz added, even though they likely connected the name "to the famous actor and to his famous sheriff character."

The 80-year-old actor, Andrew Samuel Griffith, is best known for starring in "The Andy Griffith Show", which remains one of the most popular series in TV history. He also played quirky defense lawyer Ben Matlock on "Matlock" which aired from 1986-1995.

The actor now lives in North Carolina, where he owns Mayberry Enterprises, which controls the intellectual property rights to his name and characters. He also has a role in the film "Waitress," a drama starring Keri Russell that opened in theaters last week.

Shabaz said he doubted the actor had suffered any damage to his reputation or lost income from the candidate's name change.

"Plaintiff's campaign attempted to take advantage of a connection to Sheriff Taylor's honesty and ethical behavior - hardly connections which would suggest damage to plaintiff's reputation," he wrote.

The judge left it up to Wisconsin courts to decide "whether a name can be legally changed for political advantage and whether a person is entitled to pursue election under a legally changed name.

Madison lawyer Jeff Scott Olson, who represents the former candidate, said Monday that his client is relieved by the ruling since he has few resources to defend himself. He acknowledged the actor could appeal or pursue the case in state court.

"That will be up to Andrew Samuel Griffith," he said. "But I hope that he'll be satisfied that based on what he's learned during this case that my client is not a threat to his reputation."

The actor's lawyer, James Cole, did not immediately return a phone message.

Griffith, who turns 43 this month, won about 7.5 percent of the vote in the November 2006 election but finished far behind Republican incumbent Keith Govier and a Democratic challenger. Olson said his client would not rule out another run in 2008.

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