Mattel, the maker of the famous Barbie dolls, is suing rival MGA over its popular Bratz range, claiming that its inventor Carter Bryant was actually a Mattel employee when he came up with the design. So although he eventually defected to MGA, Mattel says it still owns the rights to his inventions – and more importantly, a slice of the estimated $2bn that Bratz makes for the company each year.
For those of you not familiar with Bratz, it’s basically a cooler version of Barbie – instead of the sophisticated outfits and timeless charm, Bratz dolls have over-sized lips, funky clothes, and crazy hairstyles (‘the only girls with a fashion for passion’, we’re told). Mary Whitehouse might not approve, but the dolls have been going down a storm: while Barbie sales have slipped in recent years, the Bratz brand has taken a big bite out of its market share – as well as the plastic dolls, there’s now a cartoon, an online community and even a film. Life in plastic really is fantastic for Bratz.
The complication here seems to be that Bryant had technically left Mattel’s employ when he came up with the idea – but he then returned to the company for a while before decamping to MGA. Mattel says that he worked on his designs during this intervening period (which would give them a strong claim to his designs) and further claims that MGA went to great lengths to conceal this later. Naturally, MGA denies all this and is counter-suing for $1bn in damages. Who’d have thought plastic dolls could cause so much aggravation?
To muddy the waters still further, Mattel had been pursuing Bryant through the courts directly, over the $35m in royalties he’s apparently earned from Bratz – but last week they agreed to settle out of court. And since nobody has any idea what the agreement was, nobody knows who this is likely to benefit in court (both sides are claiming it suits them - but then they would, wouldn’t they?).
The whole spat just goes to show how important people are to any creative business – and how important it is to get your employment contracts in order. Still, perhaps Mattel could console itself by capitalising on the publicity and launching some new dolls for a business-savvy audience? After all - if some of the executives involved had spent their childhoods playing with Litigious Barbie, or Intellectual Property Rights Barbie, or even Restrictive Covenants Barbie, this might never have happened.