Grade 9 Reopens 'Barbie vs. Bratz' Intellectual Property Case
In the elegant conference room of the historic Winslow Building, accusations flew and objections were sustained as Shore ninth graders staged a mock trial that resurrected the years-long "Barbie vs. Bratz" intellectual property battle, which pitted the giant toymaker Mattel, creator of Barbie, against its smaller rival, MGA Entertainment. Mattel claimed that MGA's billion-dollar Bratz line of dolls infringed on its intellectual property and harmed its business; it sought to recoup all of MGA's Bratz profits that came from what Mattel believed was its idea.
Just as in the real case, which played out in a headlines-grabbing series of trials that extended from 2004 to 2011—and is now the subject of a lengthy retelling in The New Yorker—ninth graders representing Mattel, the plaintiff, argued that one of its former employees, Carter Bryant, created the idea for the Bratz dolls—which he then sold to MGA—while he was still under contract with Mattel. Therefore, they argued, the Bratz concept was rightfully Mattel's, as were MGA's profits from the doll. The defense team, however, maintained that Bryant, while indeed a former Mattel doll designer, came up with Bratz while on a leave from the company, and lawfully sold his idea to MGA.
The ninth grade jury listened intently as witnesses for the prosecution revealed that Bryant had stolen discarded bits and pieces of Mattel doll prototypes to create his own, and they took notes as the star defense witness, "Bryant" himself, attempted to explain the origins of his Bratz concept. A team of two judges presided over the mostly orderly proceedings, interrupting only to referee objections over a witness's conjecture or a lawyer's leading question. A courtroom artist and court recorder captured the action for posterity.
During the real Mattel-MGA saga, a California district court initially ruled in Mattel's favor, ordering MGA to pay some of the damages Mattel had sought. However, on an appeal of the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the majority's decision held, "Most of what makes a fashion doll desirable is not protectable intellectual property." When MGA then counter-sued Mattel, it was the surprise victor, earning millions for what it said was Mattel's own infringement of intellectual property owned by MGA. In the end, Mattel's original lawsuit was seen as an attempt to squash a competitor; had it been upheld, it would have represented a paralyzing interpretation of intellectual property. As the Ninth District ruling, written by chief judge Alex Kozinski, pointed out, Mattel "can’t claim a monopoly over fashion dolls with a bratty look or attitude, or dolls sporting trendy clothing."
Shore's ninth graders pursued a more narrow focus in the case, debating the core question of who owned the Bratz concept. After attorneys presented their closing arguments, a jury of four deliberated privately, and quickly returned with their own verdict: aligning themselves with the U.S. Court of Appeals, the Grade 9 jury found in favor of MGA and Carter Bryant, declaring them the rightful owners of Bratz.