Bratz boffin busted by Barbie

Big news in the doll world: Barbie maker Mattel has won its copyright case against Bratz...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Back in May, MT brought you news of a high court showdown between Mattel, creator of the world-famous Barbie doll, and MGA, maker of upstart rival Bratz. At the centre of the dispute was Bratz designer Carter Bryant, who worked for Mattel before decamping to MGA. Mattel claimed that he came up with the designs while still on its payroll, meaning that MGA was in breach of copyright by selling them – and a US court has just upheld the claim, potentially leaving the toymaker in line for a huge compensation payout.

A jury unanimously decided that Bryant had indeed been under contract with Mattel when he came up with the original designs for Bratz dolls, a younger, funkier version of Barbie that has been eating into the latter’s market share in recent years. What’s more, it also found that MGA and its CEO Isaac Larian were complicit in the whole thing, ruling that they ‘intentionally interfered with [Bryant’s] contractual duties’ and ‘aided and abetted [his] breach of his duty of loyalty’. Not surprisingly, Mattel chairman and CEO Robert Eckert was cock-a-hoop today, calling it ‘a victory for all those who believe in fair play’ and generally milking it for all he was worth.

The next step is for the court to decide whether Bratz dolls are based on Bryant’s original designs – if so, MGA may have to fork out millions in damages. But the decision’s not quite as clear-cut as it looks. MGA points out that Mattel isn’t even bothering to try and claim the rights to anything other than the very early Bratz dolls – and argues that even those were developed separately by its own designers.

And for Eckert, the bigger concern is that Mattel still seems to be lagging behind its smaller rival in terms of innovation and execution. It may have won the rights to Bryant’s drawings on a technicality, but the fact remains it had nothing to do with the creative process – and it’s struggled to respond to the subsequent success of the Bratz range. MGA argues that this is a desperate measure by Mattel: ‘MGA believes Mattel, having failed to compete in the marketplace, has resorted to litigation as a business strategy,’ and accused the giant toymaker of trying to ‘litigate MGA to death’.

What’s more, there’s no sign that Mattel has learned its lessons. Its latest attempt to update Barbie’s image – Black Canary Barbie, complete with fishnet stockings, leather boots and a motorcycle jacket – has already been provoking horrified opposition (with one Christian group describing it as ‘filth’ to Fox News today). Even if he wins the damages claim, Eckert clearly still has a lot of work to do to get Barbie back on top...


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