JUSTICE

CAT FIGHT IN THE TOY AISLE

The world’s top doll companies are in a nasty legal battle for money and market share

LIANNE GEORGE June 9 2008
JUSTICE

CAT FIGHT IN THE TOY AISLE

The world’s top doll companies are in a nasty legal battle for money and market share

LIANNE GEORGE June 9 2008

CAT FIGHT IN THE TOY AISLE

JUSTICE

The world’s top doll companies are in a nasty legal battle for money and market share

LIANNE GEORGE

While the world has been preoccupied with the trifles of lesser starlets, the original queen of plastic, Barbie, has become the target of an alleged “rivalled Barbie genocide.” This according to internal Mattel memos recently presented in a California courtroom. The “rival” in question is a pack of sexy, 10-inch fashion dolls named Cloe, Jade, Yasmin and Sasha—a.k.a. the Bratz, property of MGA Entertainment.

For four years now, the two doll makers have been engaged in fits of legal hair-pulling over copyright infringement and unfair competition.

This week, a jury is assembled to determine, once and for all, who is the rightful owner of Bratz—Barbie’s biggest-ever competition in the US$1.4-billion fashion-doll sector.

At its core, this is a fight over a boy: Carter Bryant, a former Mattel designer and the inventor of Bratz, “the only girls with a passion for fashion.” Unlike Barbie, with her impeccable proportions, Bratz, which MGA first released in 2001, have full lips, bedroom eyes, small torsoes and enormous heads. They are ethnically ambiguous and have fashionrelated career ambitions. Most importantly, these dolls have what marketers call “attitude”—a stylish, self-important sensibility that is spiritually aligned with mean-girls brands like the Clique and Gossip Girl.

“One of the things I think is really significant is that Barbie always wanted the support of moms,” says Chris Byrne, a New York-based toy industry analyst. “Bratz really went right to the kid.” Because of their sexy clothes and instant popularity with tweens, Bratz quickly emerged as ground zero for the sexualization-of-girls debate—the American Psychiatric Association deemed their miniskirts, fishnets and feather boas “worrisome.”

Bryant’s legal troubles began in 2004 when Mattel sued him for US$35 million in royalties for Bratz, alleging that Bryant was employed

by Mattel at the time he devised the concept and that, by rights, it owned the property.

Bryant had worked as a Barbie designer for Mattel from 1995 to 1998 and from 1999 to late 2000. Fie claims he invented Bratz during the window in the middle, while he was living with his parents in Missouri and working freelance. In 2000, Bryant met with Isaac Larian, the CEO of MGA—a privately held Californiabased toy manufacturer—and presented him with several Bratz sketches. Larian’s ll-yearold daughter happened to be in the room at the time and called the designs pretty—and so Bryant left Mattel.

In the fall of 2004, Bratz became the topselling dolls in Britain. The brand soon began spinning off into video games and live-action feature films. Analysts estimate MGA’s annual sales of Bratz products at US$500 million. Last year, NPD Group and Nielsen Company reported Bratz the No. 1 fashion-themed dolls in the U.S. and Canada respectively. Sales of Barbie, meanwhile, have been on a slow decline since 2001. In 2007, sales in the U.S. decreased by 15 per cent, and they dropped by another 12 per

cent in the first quarter of this year. Although Byrne doesn’t believe for a second the theory that the Barbie franchise is dying, he does think the advent of Bratz forced the company to wake up and innovate. “I think Mattel was a little bit taken by surprise by Bratz,” says Byrne. “They certainly didn’t anticipate the challenge that it caused.”

Mattel first attempted to win back market share with the 2003 launch of Flavas, the hip-hoppiest line of hip-hop dolls a panel of executives could ever dream up. Consisting of a “crew” of six multi-ethnic dolls—with “street” names like Happy D, Kiyoni Brown and P. Bo—Flavas were “the first reality-based fashion-doll brand that celebrates today’s teen culture.” Critics accused the company of cultural stereotyping. Later, Mattel launched its My Scene line, a more Bratz-like, poutylipped iteration of Barbie.

Countering Mattel’s original allegations, MGA turned around and sued Mattel in 2005 for “serial copycatting” of Bratz’s “multi-ethnic looks, fashions and packaging.” MGA spokesperson David Silver says the case will go to trial in 2009In turn, in 2006, Mattel amended its original suit against Bryant, and accused MGA, Larian, and other MGA divisions and former employees of luring away important Mattel staff from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico and milking them for company secrets, including Bratz designs and prototypes.

In a hearing in late April, MGA introduced internal Mattel memos it had obtained dating back to 2003 and 2004 as evidence that Mattel’s lawsuit was an attempt to bully the little guy out of business. “This is war and sides must be taken,” one document allegedly said. In another, Mattel employees allegedly referenced a strategy to “litigate [MGA] to death.” It is a David and Goliath situation, Silver says. “MGA is David all the way.”

Last week, Mattel reached an agreement with Bryant, although details of the settlement have not been made public. But the trial against MGA for copyright infringement is ongoing. If Mattel can prove Bryant indeed breached his contract by entering into negotiations with MGA, the company stands to win hundreds of millions of dollars. If the jury finds in MGA’s favour, however, Larian told the press he plans to sue Mattel for US$1 billion in damages—a lifetime’s worth of tiny feather boas.