After a seven week trial in U.S. District Court, yesterday a jury ruled in favor of giant toymaker Mattel in its federal copyright infringement case against MGA Entertainment, the company behind the wildly successful Bratz dolls.
Mattel claimed that it owned the rights to Bratz (which MGA has spun out into an estimated $1 billion licensing empire) because its creator, Carter Bryant, came up with the line while he was under contract at Mattel, as a Barbie designer. Mattel’s lawyers argued that Bryant signed an agreement giving Mattel the rights to anything he designed while there. The jury agreed.
During the trial Bryant testified that he shared his Bratz designs with MGA in 1998 during an eight month break between two working tours with Mattel, one in September 1995 and April 1998 and the second in January 1999 and October 2000.
Ever since the multi-ethnic Bratz dolls arrived in 2001, sales at Mattel, the maker of Barbie have dropped steadily. For decades, clean cut Barbie was the dominant doll of choice for girls. Then along came Bratz dolls with their large-heads, pouty lips and sassy hip-hop influenced style, shaking up a complacent Mattel and Barbie’s place in girls’ bedrooms all over the world.
At stake, is possibly hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for Mattel which is also seeking an injunction to stop MGA from selling the Bratz franchise.
There is something else to consider however. Scores of small businesses get their start by entrepreneurs who dream up new ideas while working for large corporations. Had Bryant stayed at Mattel, who is to say the world’s largest toymaker would have manufactured Bratz. It is standard practice to sign “inventions agreements” that give a company proprietary rights to one’s designs while employed. It is something to strongly consider when doodling on company time. The notion that one’s ideas are owned by a corporate body can also be a costly one as Bryant, Mattel, and Isaac Larian, MGA’s CEO have found out. How costly remains to be seen. The jury is now set to begin the damages phase of the trial.