Bratz versus Barbie versus Lilli

“Valley Of the Dolls,” by Jill Lepore. The New Yorker, 1/28/2018.

Many a mother has given her approval when her young daughter asks to go to the mall to get a new Barbie doll, but comes home with a Bratz doll. They are not the same. A Bratz doll is something the mother’s husband would chose.

Bratz, not Barbie.

Bratz dolls are bratty-looking, pubescent teenagers in over-the-top makeup: bright, pouty lipstick and huge doe-eyes, icy eye shadow, lip gloss, impossibly-long eyelashes, and cat eyeliner. They dress like wannabe hookers in come-hither clothes. Definitely not Barbie, but much like the girls I see in our mall. Bratz dolls are meant to show a lot of “sass.”

Bratz dolls are made by MGA Entertainment; Barbie dolls are made by Mattel. The trouble is, the designer of the Bratz dolls, Carter Bryant, 31 years old at the time, created them while he was working at Mattel by putting together pieces from the trash, although he claims he got the idea while on an earlier 7-month break. Bryant sold his idea to MGA Entertainment two weeks before he quit Mattel.

As is routine almost everywhere, Bryant had signed an intellectual-property agreement with Mattel that said everything he created during his employment with Mattel belonged to Mattel. Today, nine out of ten patents are owned by corporations, although they are the result of their employees efforts. Still, the corporations provided the creative environment and paid the patent expenses.

MGA Entertainment came out with four Bratz dolls in 2001, named Jade, Cloe, Yasmin, and Sasha, and sold $97 million worth of them. That is a lot of money. Everybody quickly sued everybody else, resulting in millions of dollars flowing to the lawyers, but no clear winner. A judge said, “The only thing wrong that I saw when I held Barbie is when I lift her skirt there is nothing underneath.” (This same judge resigned just last month after being charged by more than a dozen women of inappropriate behavior.)

Ironically, even Barbie is a not-very-subtle copy of an earlier German doll, Lilli, the title character in a tabloid comic strip. Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, bought more than a dozen Lilli dolls in 1956 while on a tour of Europe with her children Barbie and Ken (!) She shipped the dolls home and charged designer Jack Ryan with making an American Lilli. (He did not work hard.  I could not tell the dolls apart.)

Jack Ryan was briefly married to Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1975 to 1976. Ruth Handler called him “the world’s greatest swinger,” but did not say why.

Nine in ten American girls own at least one Barbie doll, so there could be more Barbie dolls in America than people. But we’ll never know. Pull her string and Barbie says, “Math class is tough.”

You can see how complex everything had gotten. And, it may not be over yet. Creativity occurs deep in the mind, and who knows what sparks it? A Supreme Court judge had said, “Virgil had borrowed much from Homer . . . and even Shakespeare and Milton . . . would be found to have gathered much from the abundant stores of current knowledge and classical studies in their days.”

As I pointed out in the posting on William Penn, a jury’s decision is above the written law.  The law may be very clear, and someone may have, just as clearly, violated that law, but a jury can exonerate the defendant if they think the law is unfair, or for no reason at all.  The ramifications of a case involving the young William Penn set this legal principle.

During a trial, the MGA lawyer asked Mattel’s CEO, “Say I am 18, doodling away. I place my doodles in my parents’ house in one of the drawers of my teen-age closet. Twenty years later, I am hired by Mattel. I visit my parents’ home and find the doodles. Does Mattel own them?”

Mattel’s CEO answered Yes, but the jury awarded MGA over $300 million in damages.  Clearly, there is still a variation of opinion, no matter what people sign when they are first hired.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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