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When trademarks, patents and litigation help create a profitable pop icon: Barbie

Published in: Intellectual Property
by Arlo Canella
Home > When trademarks, patents and litigation help create a profitable pop icon: Barbie

Barbie is more than just a toy protected by trademarks, patents and copyrights. Barbie is a grown woman, independent and, at last, a protagonist. In the 1960s, thanks to Barbie, her inventor Ruth Handler allowed her daughter to move away from dolls and, thus to stop imagining herself simply a wife or mother (after all, Ken always remained little more than an accessory). In this article, I will share a few anecdotes about what is for all intents and purposes a global icon and, more importantly, how intellectual property sometimes allows even dreams to be protected.

The "vision" of Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie.

Every idea draws inspiration from other ideas, and innovation often comes from observing the surrounding reality. In the case of Barbie, the character that defined an era, reality took shape by observing the needs of a little girl and the desire to propose an adult model in the world of toys. The creator, Ruth Handler, observing her daughter’s dissatisfaction with playing with baby dolls, found the inspiration she lacked in Germany, in a doll called Bild Lilli. The revolutionary idea was to come up with an adult figure, elegant and ambitious, that could stimulate the imagination of little girls.

March 9, 1959 represents a key date in toy history, marking the launch of the first Barbie, or rather, Barbara Millicent Roberts. Her unveiling at the American International Toy Fair in New York, with an initial cost of only three dollars, was an immediate and absolute success, despite the initial reluctance of Mattel’s administrators, including Ruth’s own husband, Elliot. Since then, Barbie has become much more than just a doll, embodying dreams, aspirations, and social role models for generations.

It was more than a matter of intuition and marketing, though; patent US3009284A, filed by Ruth Handler in 1959, became the seal of a unique and unmistakable design, protecting every aspect of the doll, from the shape of the body to the position of the limbs. This patent represented Barbie’s official birth certificate, enshrining her entrance into the Olympus of modern cultural icons, and forming the basis for a history spanning more than 60 years, now enhanced by the film (starring Margot Robbie), which celebrates an imagery that has ridden trends and social patterns while remaining true to its essence.

Whether "Bild Lilli" came before Barbie is a fact.

The story of Bild Lilli, Barbie’s “secret sister,” is a fascinating chapter in the evolution of the toy that has enchanted generations of children. Lilli was created in 1955 as a representation of a popular character from the German tabloid Bild. Designed by Reinhard Beuthein as a sex symbol and depicted with an exaggeratedly buxom body, she quickly became a joke among men and was sold in tobacco stores and adult stores in the German-speaking world.

Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, was fascinated by Lilli’s female form and her ability to be dressed in different costumes. She saw in that doll the realization of her dream: a three-dimensional, adult toy that could be shaped and dressed like a paper doll. The legal events that followed Handler’s inspiration from Lilli were just as intricate as the story of the doll itself.

After noticing the similarities between Barbie and Lilli, the Greiner & Hausser company, which had created and sold Lilli, entered into a licensing agreement with a Mattel rival, Louis Marx, to create a Barbie competitor called “Miss Seventeen” using Lilli’s original molds. Later on, Marx and Hausser sued Mattel for copyright infringement on Lilli, but the lawsuit did not achieve the desired effect. Hausser sold the copyrights and patents to Mattel in 1964 for a pittance, and his company went bankrupt shortly thereafter.

The connection between Barbie and Lilli has been a subject of debate and controversy for decades. In 2001, Greiner & Hausser even filed another lawsuit against Mattel, claiming it was forced to settle the dispute and claiming copyrights on every Barbie sold since 1964. This attempt, too, was a wash. Today, they downplay the connection, claiming that Ruth was simply inspired by watching her daughter play with paper dolls and that Lilli only demonstrated how it was possible to produce and sell an 11 1/2-inch doll.

The "Barbie Girl" hit and the dispute against Aqua

The year 1997 saw the birth of a musical phenomenon that would sweep the world: “Barbie Girl” by Aqua. This hit not only reached the top of the international charts, but also sparked a major legal dispute.

Six months after the song’s release, Mattel, sued MCA Records, Aqua’s record label. The reason? Mattel believed the song had turned Barbie into a sex object, infringing on their trademark and damaging the doll’s long-standing image and reputation. Aqua and MCA Records counterattacked, sparking a full-blown legal epic.

The affair went through several stages, becoming a landmark case in the area of intellectual property rights. In 2002, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that “Barbie Girl” was a mere “parody” and, as such, protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The judge dismissed both Mattel’s lawsuit and the defamation lawsuit filed by the AQUAs.

In an ironic twist, Mattel decided in 2009 to embrace the song as part of a new marketing strategy, changing the lyrics and using it in a series of advertisements. The legal dispute with Aqua was now over, and “Barbie Girl” had earned a place in the cultural imagination, becoming a timeless classic.

The story of the song and related legal battle provides an important example of the intersection of trademark rights, legal interpretations, and pop culture, explaining how a single song can even transform, challenge, and ultimately strengthen a commercial product like Barbie.

The blockbuster film and the impact of intellectual property

The film released in Italy on July 20, starring Margot Robbie as Barbie, is not only another step in the evolution of a global icon, but a demonstration of how a character can transform and adapt to cultural changes.

This film has already proved to be a blockbuster and cannot fail to evoke deep reflections in the viewer. Personally, during the viewing and especially toward the end of the film, I wished that “stereotype Barbie,” in some sort of ultimate metamorphosis, would decide to grab a baseball bat, as Harley Quinn (also played by Margot Robbie) is wont to do, to smash that pink world that – albeit amusing – was beginning to appear overly brainy (but these remain personal assessments, undoubtedly a reflection of the character’s complexity).

The case of Barbie shows us instead how intellectual property is despite itself a key player in the story of every valuable project. Trademark, patent, and copyright are not mere legal details, but key elements that can determine the success and longevity of a product or idea. In the case of Barbie, these tools have allowed the doll to remain relevant for over 60 years, crossing generations, trends, and controversies, thus becoming much more than just a toy.

As a final note, the Barbie story teaches us that intellectual property is not just an academic topic, but something very concrete that affects popular culture and the development potential of the companies that own it. Movies, licenses, trademarks and patents are tools through which ideas take shape and become part of the social fabric. Barbie, with its evolution from toy to cultural icon, testifies to how creativity and innovation, when protected and enhanced, can generate a lasting, meaningful and profitable impact that can go far beyond the simple initial idea.

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Publication date: 9 August 2023
Last update: 7 September 2023
Avv. Arlo Cannela

Avvocato Arlo Canella

Managing Partner of Canella Camaiora Law Firm, member of the Milan Bar Association, passionate about Branding, Communication and Design.
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