Custody fight over Bratz dolls isn’t child’s play
Barbie vs. the Bratz sounds like a Saturday-morning cartoon show, but the bitter copyright infringement trial in federal court plays more like an episode of “CSI,” complete with body parts.
Doll body parts.
As the trial over who owns the wildly successful Bratz powered through its third week in U.S. District Court in Riverside, there has been courtroom intrigue over a software program named Evidence Eliminator, a high school yearbook from Brad Pitt’s alma mater, an anonymous warning letter and a mixed-gender sample doll made out of a Barbie body with Ken boots.
On one side of the courtroom is the world’s largest toy company, Mattel Inc., which claims the Bratz concept was created secretly by one of its own designers who at the time was working on its signature Barbie line. Mattel, based in El Segundo, wants a stake in the saucy Bratz, known for hip-hugging outfits and bare midriffs, which have prospered as chaste Barbie has faltered.
On the other side is MGA Entertainment Inc. of Van Nuys, a formerly small player in the toy business that debuted Bratz in 2001. It claims full ownership; its lawyers have said the doll was created at a time the designer was taking a break from Mattel.
The cast in the sterile courtroom includes high-priced lawyers, who arrive in plush vans and argue everything from fine points of law to the allegedly exclusionary booking practices at a local hotel.
There’s a no-nonsense judge and a Greek chorus of courtroom observers, some of whom wouldn’t say why they were there or give their last names.
The reason for all this is money, and lots of it. MGA is a private company that doesn’t disclose its earnings, but analysts estimate it makes as much as $2 billion a year from Bratz products and licenses.
The doll’s creator, Carter Bryant, has gotten more than $30 million in royalties.
It’s not clear how much of that he’ll be able to hang on to. Bryant, 39, was named in the Mattel suit, filed four years ago.
Last month, shortly after Judge Stephen Larson ruled that the exclusivity contract Bryant signed as a Mattel employee was valid, Bryant reached a settlement with the toy giant. Neither Bryant nor Mattel will talk about the sealed deal.
Mattel and MGA continue to slug it out, with Bryant as the uncomfortable star witness.
So far, this case has been all about timing. A former songwriter wannabe, Bryant got a job designing fashions, hair and makeup on the Barbie line at Mattel in 1995 and stayed until April 1998, when he left for the Springfield, Mo., area to live with his parents. He got a job at an Old Navy store.
Bryant and MGA contend that the doll came out of the designer’s imagination -- and he did the key sketches of it -- during the Missouri break. Bryant returned to Mattel in January 1999, defecting to MGA in October 2000. Mattel is pushing the theory that Bryant created Bratz during his second stint at the company.
Among the topics Mattel lawyer Bill Price brought up with the designer during intense and methodical questioning:
* The Evidence Eliminator computer software program.
Price said that the program, advertised as being able to remove “sensitive information,” was used on Bryant’s laptop two days before investigators copied the computer’s contents. Bryant said he bought the program to eliminate pop-up ads and his Internet search history, which included viewing sites that an MGA attorney described as “adult-content type.”
Price hammered away at the use of the program to wipe out content. Did Bryant run it shortly before the investigators arrived, Price asked.
“You know, it’s possible,” Bryant testified. “I don’t remember doing it.”
* The yearbook showing students’ clothing tastes.
Bryant said he was inspired by seeing the clothes worn by students as he drove past Springfield’s Kickapoo High School. Pitt, a 1982 graduate, was long gone by then.
Although the multiracial Bratz wear what Mattel has characterized as hip-hop fashions, pictures from the school yearbook showed students who seemed more Ozzie and Harriet than Lil’ Kim.
Bryant said he was also inspired by ads with pouty-lipped women with large shoes and tight outfits.
* The trail of fake hair and Ken boots.
Price showed a letter from Bryant to a doll-hair company in Japan asking for samples. Although he was still employed by Mattel, he wrote: “The company I am working with is called MGA Entertainment.”
Other evidence included Bryant’s admitted use of discarded Barbie and Ken parts to make a mock-up of his creation and an invoice presented Tuesday that showed he had billed MGA for work on “hair designs and sketches” while still at Mattel.
MGA maintains that the crucial factor is when Bryant actually created the doll.
* The missing pages from the designer’s notebook.
The jury was shown a spiral notebook, missing several pages, that Bryant had used for sketching and notes. Some of the remaining content, including a handwritten list of bank deposits, was from 1999, when Bryant was at Mattel.
Price hinted that Mattel could prove that drawings key to the dolls’ creation came from the notebook. He asked whether Bryant understood that “sometimes the pressure you make with your drawing can make indentations on the next page.”
Then Price suddenly dropped the topic. One observer in the courtroom whispered: “If Price brought that up, he’d better be able to deliver on it.”
Mattel’s forensic experts take the stand this week.
Bryant said during cross-examination that he didn’t use notebooks sequentially.
* The unsigned letter warning of Mattel surveillance.
The anonymous letter arrived at an MGA office June 4, warning Chief Executive Isaac Larian that Mattel executives “have collaborated to spy on you and your family at your home and your children’s school.”
Mattel spokeswoman Lisa Marie Bongiovanni called the allegations “completely unfounded.”
MGA submitted the letter to Judge Larson, who sealed it.
After The Times wrote about the letter, a visibly upset Larson ordered MGA lawyer Jason D. Russell from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to his chambers for a chat. When the attorney emerged, his hands were shaking so badly he had trouble packing his briefcase.
No one crossed Larson after that.
The case is likely to go into July, unless the two sides settle.
But they might have to find neutral ground for that.
The most famous place to stay in Riverside is the historic Mission Inn.
MGA’s legal team is staying there, but when Mattel’s attorneys tried to book a block of rooms, they were told they couldn’t. MGA had gotten the hotel to agree to turn Mattel’s representatives away.
Mattel’s team complained in court, but the judge said he had no power to rule on the matter. Mattel set up at the Marriott.
Who said doll makers play nice?
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Annual sales: $2 billion to $3 billion (estimated)
Accessories: Barbie has had an on-off boyfriend (Ken), a parade of siblings, a dream house and dozens of pets, fashion phases and careers.
Maker: MGA Entertainment
Annual sales: $500 million to $2 billion (estimated)
Accessories: The multiethnic dolls have big heads, pouty lips and wide eyes. Their hip, skimpy clothing has earned them the nickname “Slutz.”
Source: Times research