C’mon Barbie, Let’s Go Sue Somebody

Ahiranis Castillo

Mattel is no stranger to the court room. From preventing similar dolls from entering the market, to suing MCA Records for a cheeky song, the company is incredibly protective of Barbie’s brand.[1]

Mattel’s protectiveness of the product stems from its immense profitability, and that profitability is directly impacted by its protection of Barbie’ image. Since its inception, the Barbie doll has tried to embody the perfect American beauty standard. Barbie was, for an intents and purposes, perfect—and Mattel has gone through many lengths to keep her that way.

As such, the iconic doll has taken on many forms, slowly transforming through the years to keep up with evolving beauty norms.[2] Barbie also began to take on new careers and embody iconic eras. But it wasn’t long before Mattel began receiving critique for its adherence to unrealistic expectations of women. Slowly, it began to incorporate more diversity into the iconic character; More skin tones, genders, body types, and disability-statuses were incorporated into the Barbie universe. Now, there are so many Barbie dolls available, that every interested buyer is bound to find a representation of Barbie that speaks to themselves in one way or another.[3]

While this is undoubtedly a triumph for evolving conversations of body image, when I look at the every-expanding Barbie aisle in toy stores it, feels like a copyright nightmare. At this point, Barbie could truly be anything or anyone. But as she has transformed, courts have affirmed her copyright-ability. The court in Mattel v. Goldberger, for example, spoke to the evolution, saying, “Mattel’s evidence showed that it frequently produces revisions and adjustments to the particular realization of the Barbie face in an effort to continue to appeal to its young customers, as their tastes change with time. It is entitled by its copyright not to have its design copied by competitors.”[4] That same court held that Mattel’s consistent expression of Barbie’s features, like her upturned nose, widely spaced eyes, and bow lips, was protectable under copyright law because it met the originality requirement for copyright protection.[5] This was one thing when Goldberger was decided in 2004, as there were then fewer conceptions and embodiments of Barbie. But today, the Barbie Universe is almost too expansive to fathom.

The purpose of copyright is to protect expressive ideas and not broad concepts. As Barbie continues to expand to display every look and career that a woman may have, I wonder if she simply represents all womanhood, a concept which is surely not copyrightable. Do we really want such an aggressive company expanding its all-encompassing image of womanhood and then suing anyone that it believes is trespassing on its idea?

I raise this question not because Mattel has yet tried to take any legal action that is as drastic as claiming a right to all woman-presenting dolls. But because it has something of a history of suing for copyright infringement, and it’s important to ponder where the bounds may be as the company veers further and further from its original iconic doll.


[1] 1. Mattel, Inc. v. Pitt, 229 F. Supp. 2d 315 (S.D.N.Y. 2002); Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Recs., Inc., 28 F. Supp. 2d 1120 (C.D. Cal. 1998)

[2] 2. Sophie Caldwell, Barbie Through the Years: How the Iconic Doll Has Evolved Since 1959, Today (July 19, 2023), https://www.today.com/popculture/types-of-barbies-rcna94143 [https://perma.cc/T9TP-XTKR] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240302185921/https://www.today.com/popculture/types-of-barbies-rcna94143]; Beth Sobol, What Barbie Looked Like the Year You Were Born, Reader’s Digest (Oct. 12, 2023), https://www.rd.com/list/what-barbie-looked-like-decade-you-were-born/ [https://perma.cc/EV6U-EBG7] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240302190246/https://www.rd.com/list/what-barbie-looked-like-decade-you-were-born/]

[3] Barbie Dolls, Mattel, https://shop.mattel.com/collections/barbie-dolls [https://perma.cc/78RU-A86S] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240302190438/https://shop.mattel.com/collections/barbie-dolls] (last visited Mar. 2, 2024).

[4] Mattel, Inc. v. Goldberger, 365 F.3d 133 (2d Cir. 2004).

[5] Id.