If you think of Barbie as a sweet girl who never gets into legal trouble, think again. No, it's not because she crashed her pink Corvette, neglected to renew her pilot's license, or has bust-to-waist measurements that should be illegal. Often, the trouble comes when creative people find, um, interesting ways to incorporate Barbie into their art-without Mattel's permission. Who knew innocent Barbie could be at the heart of such tumultuous legal battles?
Food Chain Barbie
A photographer used a series of photos he called "Food Chain Barbie" to comment on gender roles and consumerism. The photos show a naked Barbie juxtaposed with various kitchen appliances. For example, "Malted Barbie" features a nude Barbie in a malt machine and "Barbie Enchiladas" shows several Barbies wrapped in tortillas in an oven.
Mattel sued the artist, claiming that Barbie was used without permission and that the photographs tarnished her reputation. (What will Ken think?) However, the court found that the First Amendment made it okay and ordered Mattel to pay the artist's substantial attorney's fees.
Radio City Music Hall designed a "Rockettes 2000 Doll" to celebrate the new millennium. The dolls were supposed to represent the famous Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, but Mattel thought they looked a little bit too much like Barbies. It claimed that Radio City and their doll makers used Barbie's facial features.
Radio City managed to fend off the lawsuit at the district court level. The court found no copyright infringement, repeating another court's finding that, "When it comes to something as common as a youthful, female doll, the unprotectible elements are legion, including, e.g ., full faces; pert, upturned noses; bow lips; large, widely spaced eyes; and slim figures." However, the appeals court disagreed, saying that because Mattel had put a lot of work into figuring out which facial features appealed to the public, it was entitled to have Barbie's facial features protected by copyright.
Barbie Girl Sings
Danish pop group Aqua's song "Barbie Girl" may have been a hit in the dance clubs, but not with Mattel. Perhaps, it was the lyrics, in which Barbie croons "I'm a blond bimbo" and "undress me anywhere." In suing the record company, MCA Records, Inc., Mattel claimed that the song damaged the reputation of the brand.
Mattel lost that argument. The court found that the song was a parody within the rights of the First Amendment. Apparently, Mattel didn't have any hard feelings about the outcome, because it later licensed a modified version of the song for its own advertisements. It even chose to keep some of the lyrics, such as, "Life in plastic, it's fantastic."
Barbie's telephone playhouse
An adult services website promoted "Barbie's Playhouse," where users could log in and pay by the minute to have an intimate video chat with a woman who called herself Barbie. The website used colours and fonts very similar to those used by Mattel. Mattel sued and won. The Judge (now-Supreme Court-Justice Sonia Sotomayor) found that the business purposely used the Barbie trademark to make money.
Barbie n' Bratz
When Barbie began to get some serious competition from some new girls on the toy shelf-the Bratz dolls-Mattel sued again. The Bratz dolls were hip, edgy, and multi-cultural, making Barbie seem plain and prudish by comparison. Sales in the billions of dollars cut into Barbie's profits and showed that girls loved Bratz. But after a long legal battle that racked up tens of millions of dollars in lawyer's fees, Barbie still came out on top. It turns out that the original designer of Bratz came up with the idea while working for Mattel and then took his idea to MGA, which produced the dolls. MGA was ordered to pay $100 million in damages and to stop producing and selling their sassy dolls. Predictably, that turned the existing dolls into eBay collectors' items.
Barbie and Nissan
You'd think the car company Nissan would have enough lawyers on staff to avoid this kind of trouble. But no, it created television commercials showing a GI Joe-like doll zooming in, riding his Nissan, to rescue a drowning Barbie-like doll, while a Ken-like doll looks on forlornly. The commercials, which featured the Van Halen version of "You've Really Got Me," were a hit with television watchers, but Mattel was not amused. It sued Nissan and settled out of court.
Source: Ilone Bray, Richard Stim and Nolo editors.