Book review: You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side

Photograph by Sharon Wright
Orly Lobel’s most recent book, You Don’t Own Me, retraces the story behind the infamous legal battle between Barbie and Bratz, the two market-leading dolls, a legal battle also known Mattel v MGA Entertainment [here]. The book covers a particularly timely topic,  as Barbie recently found herself in trouble for her most recent ‘Frida Kahlo look’, which was found to  infringe the late artist’s rights to her own image [see previous post here]. Of course, the cases involve different parties and slightly different claims, but the themes running through both disputes are (surprisingly perhaps) similar.  

Image result for you don't own me book barbieYou Don’t Own Me has nothing and everything to do with intellectual property law. Lobel’s book does not intend to teach or re-tell the story of copyright or trade mark through Barbie’s experience. So-called ‘black-letter’ IP commentaries make a fleeting appearance in Lobel’s narration (pp. 152-157; 162-163), but they do not pretend to be the star of the show. 

There is no disappointment to be had over this, because the book captures a much more interesting story: the hidden story of all intellectual property disputes. Such story comprises the various periods of employment and collaboration between the parties, the contracts, the negotiations, the going to court, the witness preparation, and the relationship with judges and jurors. These are only a few of the many elements which can have an impact on a court’s decision regarding the ownership of a creative work. This experience will be familiar to all US-based practitioners, but readers outside of the US or in academic circles will encounter it with interest, as it is rarely discussed in the literature. 

It is interesting to note in Lobel’s narration that much of the dispute rested on pinpointing the exact ‘eureka’ moment that sparked the whole ‘Bratz project’ led by the anti-Barbie doll creator Carter Bryant (p. 25, 146, 145-149). Was it during Bryant’s employment at Mattel, at ‘week-ends and nights’, or afterwards? It appears, from Lobel’s recounting of the dispute, that not much was made to challenge the fallacy of the ‘eureka moment’ concept, which is now roundly debunked, having been criticized  decades by psychologists and ‘creative research’ specialists  as  presenting an over-simplified depiction of  creativity that is disconnected from reality (for more on the western model of creativity see here). 

However, it should be noted that Matter did rely on the fluid nature of creativity to argue against the fact Bryant had created his Bratz outside of his day-time employment, stressing that no distinction could be drawn between day-time creativity and week-end-and-evening creativity. Unfortunately for Bryant, the argument was almost moot as the all-encompassing standard agreement he signed when he joined Mattel as an employee settled the issue during the period of his employment with Mattel.

One last reason why this book has everything to do with intellectual property is because it touches upon a subject that is little discussed yet an essential part of the ‘copyright industries’: merchandising. Recently, this Kat was told by IP scholar Dr Jose Bellido, specialist on the question of IP and merchandising, that we should the read early IP/merchandising cases as ‘hidden’ landmark IP cases. Should this be true, we should all expect the IP/merchandising section of the literature grow, with Lobel's book as one of the pack-leaders.

Book reviewed: You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side. By Orly Lobel. Norton, 304pp, £20.00. ISBN 9780393254075. Published 2 January 2018.

Image result for barbie c bratz
Barbie and the Bratz 

Book review: You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side Book review: You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side Reviewed by Mathilde Pavis on Monday, April 30, 2018 Rating: 5

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