BATTLEGROUND BARBIE: WHEN COPYRIGHTS CLASH.
Mess with Barbie, go to court.
With doll sales exceeding $1.6 billion annually, that's been Mattel's message to those who want to parody America's sweetheart - whether it's criticism of her improbable hourglass figure or the use of her name in a song.
Mattel attorneys are suing an Internet Web site, claiming it illegally used Barbie copyrights. This was just the latest of four Barbie-related trademark infringement lawsuits that have made their way to Los Angeles federal court since the beginning of 1997.
A feisty legal battle over a car commercial ended in a confidential settlement this month, but not before Nissan alleged that Barbie is the offspring of an ``adult novelty toy'' from Germany.
Mattel defends its vigilance, asserting in court papers that it is merely trying to protect consumers from the ``anti-social themes'' in unauthorized parodies of Barbie, which buyers might assume are endorsed by the toy company.
Meanwhile, fans of the 11-1/2-inch icon say they find themselves in legal peril just by trying pay homage to the doll.
``I've gotten threats myself, after I did a book on Barbie collectors,'' said Marsha Radford, who writes for an ``unauthorized'' fashion doll magazine whose owners have also been sued by Mattel. ``It was a harmless book, but Mattel doesn't play around.''
`Life is plastic'
Court filings display a morgue of Mattel trademarks for Barbie-related body parts, including several plastic heads and complete doll designs, from Snow Princess Barbie to Barbie for President.
As Mattel continued fighting legal battles with people who use those copyrights without permission, a record company kept up a six-month fight against the toy industry giant - and recently won.
Mattel sued MCA in September, claiming the song ``Barbie Girl'' by Aqua was filled with trademark violations, right down to the colors used in the band's video, which was filled with so-called ``Barbie pink.''
The lawsuit contended that lyrics from the song - such as ``life is plastic'' and ``I'm a blond bimbo girl/In a fantasy world'' - were inconsistent with the ``wholesome image'' Mattel has developed for the product.
While others facing Barbie lawsuits have settled cases or made changes to avoid costly litigation, MCA fired back with a defamation counterclaim. The record label sought damages for alleged Mattel statements that MCA is a ``bank robber'' that had committed a ``heist'' of the toy company's property.
Mattel's first legal attempt to stop distribution of the song was thwarted in February, when U.S. District Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr. declared that ``Mattel's distaste for the song's alleged message'' is not enough to grant an injunction.
``The song's fast tempo and the singers' exaggerated performances of their respective characters suggest that the lyrics are not to be taken too seriously,'' Byrne said in a 33-page ruling.
Last week, Byrne granted motions by Mattel and MCA to throw out each other's claims, although Mattel lawyers have already filed notice that they will appeal the ruling.
Pictures of Lilli
Mattel has made it very clear why Barbie is worth fighting for in court, even if lengthy litigation can generate legal fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Two Barbie dolls are sold somewhere in the world every second, the company claims in court papers. More than 1 billion Barbies have been sold since 1959, while sales of the doll exceed $1.6 billion annually.
But the need to keep others from crossing the doll's path may not outweigh the potential embarrassment that a lawsuit might bring if one of the complaints ever makes it to trial.
A naughty little Barbie secret came out in court papers defending the award-winning car commercial where a GI Joe look-alike drives his miniature Nissan 300ZX past several toys, stealing a pseudo-Barbie away from a distraught pseudo-Ken.
Nissan lawyers alleged Barbie is the illegitimate child of a less virtuous German doll named Lilli, claiming the lineage was never admitted when Barbie was copyrighted almost 40 years ago.
A Nissan attorney wouldn't comment on the case or the May 7 settlement. Mattel attorneys also declined to talk about any Barbie-related litigation.
Barbie's past has never been closely guarded among Mattel executives or collectors, who will pay up to $5,000 for a 1950s-era Lilli doll in mint condition. But the average consumer walking into Toys `R' Us might be surprised to learn about the racy doll that inspired their child's toy.
Just consider the potential testimony of one of MCA's expert witnesses, a University of California, Los Angeles professor emeritus who alternately referred to Lilli as a ``German vamp'' and a ``sexpot.''
``Mattel's idea, in 1959, was to peddle a rakish grown-up sex doll to little girls by dolling it up in designer clothes,'' Richard Lanham said in a court declaration.
``What Aqua has done in `Barbie Girl' is not to make Barbie into a `sex object' as Mattel claims, but to point out, with a punning light touch and catchy tune, that she has been one all along,'' he said.
On the Internet, many of the unauthorized Barbie sites that still exist are like ghost towns, stripped of photos by Web site creators who claim their ``artwork'' fell victim to legal threats.
Radford, who lives in San Luis Obispo, said Mattel's hard line is a source of frustration among the doll's biggest supporters.
``They're just making collectors mad,'' Radford said. ``It's like, leave everyone alone.''
Mattel says in court papers that unauthorized use of the Barbie name might be fooling fans into believing that the toy company sponsored an obscene parody.
An image thing
Indeed, some of the Web sites have Barbie and Ken dolls photographed in intricate orgies that would be confusing to any child who hasn't taken a sex education class.
Dean Brown's site, once known as ``The Barbie Chronicles,'' used to be filled with photos parodying the doll. Now it's little more than an apology.
``We regret that the photographs of 11-1/2-inch fashion dolls which graced this page can no longer be seen here because of threatened legal action,'' Brown says, with an arrow pointing to a letter from Mattel's legal department.
Below that memo, which has been trimmed into the shape of a Barbie, fans offer solace to the Web site's creator.
``As young girls,'' one fan wrote, ``we did a lot worse things to (our dolls) than you did.''
Photo: (color) Barbie vs. Lilli
According to testimony in a recent lawsuit, Barbie, left is the illegitimate child of a doll named Lilli, right, which was popular among German adults in the 1950s.
Keith Richard Radford Jr (Member): Mattel attorneys lie 10/9/2007 11:13 AM
I am Keith Richard Radford Jr.
My wife funded the making of a movie called Our 2006 BarbieTM Collectors Convention DVD. Her Name is Marsha Radford. I got word that all the video shot by the Professionals was deleted from their video storage system by accident. We posted our little home video to share with people who have never been to a convention nor could afford too. Mattel stop the sell of any videos which was retaliatory for there own mistakes. I contacted Mattel Legal Department who told me they would review the movie. This never happened. If they can't win they lie. This is just like the tactics used on e-bay by cyber cops who want you to pay them when they have no right to that power.