Barbie, art, copyright, trademark, parody?

Kathy Sierra made a “My First Scoble Doll” for Christmas out of Blaine, Ken’s mate.  Ken is Barbie’s on and off boyfriend. 

For My First Scoble, I also needed to make a label/logo for the front to cover up the “Barbie”. And just for fun, I changed the shirt to a white one I had from another doll, so that I could make it into one of Hugh’s Gaping Void t-shirts. The cartoon on the shirt is actually one that Robert’s been photographed in many times.

 It ranks up high on my “it is the thought that counts” present list,  but then I wasn’t stuck in a blizzard. 

Barbie’s politics, history, sociology and law though, make fascinating reading.  The wikipedia entry provides a start, but the juicy bits are in the unauthorised biography

Barbie has taken considerable flak  as portraying women in an unfair, and anatomically impossible light.  In 1997, Barbie’s dimensions changed- Salon  has some great commentary, especially on Barbie’s rather naughty German  ancestry.

There are several Barbies in our house, mainly on the fairytopia theme, and the Barbie DVDs have given my girls an early appreciation of classical music, so not all corrupting me thinks.  

On the downside the girls can imitate Barbie’s accent perfectly, and do so at every opportunity.

Anyway, one of the protests  involved switching the voiceboxes between GI Joe and Barbie, and then returning them to the shop. (directions here).    GI Joe would then say, “let’s bake a cake, maths is hard” and Barbie would reply, “eat lead.”  (more details here)

So what does this have to do with this blog?  Well I’m researching the relationship between law and technology (Geek law as it is sometimes called) I have written before on the relationship between IP and Art,  prompted by a dinner chat with  Tittin.

Kathy’s handiwork reminded me of a copyright case.  Tom Forsythe, an artist, was sued by Mattel, Barbie’s creators,  for creating a series of art works called the Food Chain Barbie. 

  This led to a series of protests, culminating in the  2004  Barbie in the Blender Day.  The case is described well here, and the piece provides some guidelines on the parody defence under US copyright.  Tom eventually won the case with costs.  More here at the freeculture blog.

The Forsythe case highlights the increasing challenges faced by those who wish to comment on popular icons, symbols, or cornerstones of culture, most of which are copyrighted by large corporations. “If you want to talk about the problems with society, all of the widely recognized figures are copyrighted,” says Nelson Pavlosky of “In the past, cultural icons belonged to everyone…[now] if you want to use a relevant character to critique society, you’ll get burned by companies who can silence you, not by winning in court, but by outspending you and forcing you to cave in or lose all your money.”

Other examples of Mattel’s aggressive use of copyright and trademark include  the distorted Barbie case.  This is documented by Harvard cyberlaw, and there is a transcript of an interview with Mark Napier, the artist.  

When archeologists dig into the ruins of our world they will find the Venus DiMilo of the 20th century: Barbie.  Mark Napier

Barbie also went after the Aqua Barbie Song.  They lost this case as well. (pity)

(BTW.The Harvard cyberlaw site is one of best sources of information on internet law.  A gem indeed.  If you follow  cyberlaw be sure to read Palfrey’s blog. I’m also very impressed with the Duke Law School site,  the comicthat James Boyle, Keith Aoki and Jennifer Jenkins have put together,  the movies here, and iblawg has just joined my feed read.)

I’d be interested what Geeklawyer and Pangloss, two of my favourite UK law bloggers would make of the copyright position for parody under UK law, especially given the recent Gower review.

For more on  other art that challenges trademark and copyright,  Illegal Art is a brilliant  site. Check it out.

Robert Scoble, flushed with his brush with politics,  recently posted about the  need for an IT lobby.  He commented:

Hey, maybe we should think about how the tech industry could work the political system to protect its interests.

He is right. The media industry is tremendously well organised, and I fear, too powerful.  It is easy to get carried away about  the power of social media and blogs undermining them, but I’m not convinced.   Have a look at the EFF site,  and watch this little video clip. 

Us bloggers could do a lot worse than learn a bit more about intellectual property. Copyright, trademark and patents impact most of what we do. The EFF bloggers guide is well worth reading.

It is not just Barbie. Barney is also a pretty litigious dinosaur, never mind Mickey..

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8 thoughts on “Barbie, art, copyright, trademark, parody?”

  1. I have blogged, very briefly, on my approval of the Gowers recommendation. As I said then, the economic interests, objectively assessed, are rarely, if ever, damaged by parody. Compare this with criticism which is a specific defence and DOES often damage the copyright owner. The Barbie case perfectly illustrates the hypersensitivity and megalomania of BigCorp Plc.
    I’d hazard a guess this recommendation will be accepted since it will be easy to draft and largely non-contentious; and since there is often a free speech aspect to the defense, it would seem to me to be an easy Free Speech win, with minimal real adverse consequences, for a government more concerned with the spin, form and appearance of Human Rights than the substance.

  2. Thanks Geeklawyer.
    I need to understand the line between parody and criticism better.

    One of the challenges facing technology based mechanisms of copyright protection, (DRM) is that copyright law is not the same everywhere. Even if a DRM solution was able to magically handle the fair use rules in country A, it may then fail the test for country B.

  3. Hi there, I wonder if any of the copyright lawyers on here might offer me some (free?) advise. I want to create a comic using photographs (a bit distorted with photoshop) using barbie dolls as the characters. It would be a “queered” version. Would this present any copyright issues?

  4. Hi! I’ve been reading your web site for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Atascocita Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the fantastic job!

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