Barbie and Intellectual Property Battles Through the Years
Written by: Caitlin Hamilton
With the 1959 beloved doll making its live-action debut on July 21st, the brand Mattel has found a resurgence in the media with new merch, Barbie-inspired restaurants and Airbnb listings, and even a new multi-year licensing agreement with Hasbro. While it may seem hard to watch television or open up a new web browser without being reminded of the brand, Mattel is very protective over its intellectual property and has not hesitated to sue for copyright or trademark infringement in the past.
In recent news, the fashion brand Burberry has applied for the federal trademark “BRBY." Mattel has asked the U.S. Trademark Office to reject the proposed trademark as it is likely to cause confusion between the British fashion company and Mattel’s Barbie. While phonetically speaking there is a blatant similarity, under trademark law, Burberry may also face challenges on how the trademark label will be used, since ‘Barbie’ is also seen in the fashion space.
In addition to the pending trademark decision, one may notice a sampling of Aqua’s 1997 song ‘Barbie Girl’ in the new Nicki Minaj song, ‘Barbie World,’ made for the upcoming film. Don’t worry, Aqua is officially credited on the song. However, what many listeners don’t know is that Mattel sued Aqua six months after the 1997 song’s release, claiming trademark infringement and harm to the reputation of the Barbie brand. The song was ultimately deemed a parody and thus protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution, the right to freedom of speech. However, old wounds can heal. Mattel has since embraced the song and has used it for brand advertisement, altering the lyrics to make it more family appropriate.
After the Aqua lawsuit fiasco, Mattel’s losing streak continued. Mattel attempted to allege copyright infringement on artists, as well as those who made provocative Barbie dolls, and even other doll makers such as the Bratz doll. With failed lawsuit attempts that deemed the other works transformative, forcing Mattel to pay hefty attorney fees, as well as constant competition with other doll creations, such as Disney’s Frozen obtaining a new license, it may not come as a surprise that the new Barbie movie is rated PG-13.
The Mattel brand, which encompasses a wide variety of toys in addition to Barbie, has lost 27% of its shares within the past year. Thus, a brand that was previously known as exceptionally strict on maintaining a family-appropriate model, may be allowing for slight flexibility. While the dolls sold by Mattel are still tame and family-friendly, the made-for-film song, Barbie World, includes swear words and sexual innuendos. While Greta Gerwig is the director of the film, Mattel still has a voice in the film’s fundamentals. For example, the COO president of Mattel, Richard Dickson flew to the film’s London set to dispute a scene that wasn’t ‘Barbie appropriate.’ Hence, while flexibility may be present, the company is still dedicated to maintaining the innocence of the Barbie brand and perverse lyrics are nowhere to be seen in the portion of the songs chosen for trailers or on any yet-seen theatrical distribution.