Happy Birthday Barbie! Things I Learned From Barbie . . .

By Dave Rein

Barbie, the iconic doll who lines the shelves of big box and mom-and-pop toy stores everywhere, celebrates her 50th birthday today.  I was more of a G.I. Joe kid growing up, but I'll be the first to admit that Barbie has done more for teaching us the ins and outs of trademark and copyright law than tough Joe ever did.

While others have used her birthday to look back at her last 50 years to ponder whether she has been a good or bad influence on generations of kids, her power in the fashion world, or the enormous amount of money collectors will pay for her, I was curious as to how she has shaped our view of intellectual property.  Frankly, it is somewhat surreal that when I stand before a judge or jury to argue a point, some of my arguments have been shaped by an unusually shapely plastic doll.

There are a staggering number of cases involving Barbie or cases that refer to Barbie in courts' opinions, but the most obvious area in which Barbie's charms have had the strongest influence is on our notion of parody for both trademark and copyright law. 

Perhaps the most well-known of these cases involved the song "Barbie Girl" and probably the only song by the group, Aqua, to hit the charts in the U.S.  YouTube, probably at MCA Records' request, no longer allows users to embed video of "Barbie Girl", but you can still watch it here.

The maker of Barbie, Mattel, was not terribly happy with a song that makes fun of Barbie and sued for trademark infringement.  The Court of Appeals noted that Aqua would likely lose if it used Barbie to mock others, but because the song makes fun of Barbie herself and the values that the group claims she represents, the First Amendment compels a different result. 

The same result occurred when Mattel challenged a photographer, Tom Forsythe, who displayed nude Barbies in not so flattering poses and situations.  His defense to a lawsuit for copyright and trademark infringement was successful because he was able to show that the use of Barbie in the photographs was fair use to parody and comment on his perception of Barbie's influence.  

Don't get the impression that Barbie has not done well in court.  Her $100 million win against Bratz  last year and a long string of other victories show that she is a formidable opponent in the courtroom. 

But, let's not dwell on the number of notches Barbie has on her stylish belt.  Instead, let's wish her a hearty "Happy Birthday!" and look forward to her future exploits in the courtroom over the next 50 years.

 

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