Copyright doesn’t protect dolls with a “bratty look”

On Friday the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals released its decision involving the copyright litigation between Mattel and MGA Entertainment over copyright in Barbie. The appeal decision held, among other things, that given the limited scope for originality involved in creating a particular genre of dolls that the many resemblances between Barbie and Bratz did not result in copying of copyright protected subject matter.

The case underlines basic principles of copyright law that copyright cannot protect ideas. In this case, copyright cannot protect the ideas behind “bratty dolls” or “dolls sporting trendy clothing”. In the words of the Court:

“The district court did err, however, in failing to filter out all the unprotectable elements of Bryant’s sketches. The only unprotectable elements the district court identified were: (1) the dolls’ resemblance to humans; (2) the presence of hair, head, two eyes and other human features; (3) human clothes, shoes and accessories; (4) age, race, ethnicity and “urban” or “rural” appearances; (5) standard features relative to others (like a thin body); and (6) other standard treatments of the subject matter. And it reasoned that the doll’s “[p]articularized, synergistic compilation and expression of the human form and anatomy that expresses a unique style and conveys a distinct look or attitude” is protectable, along with the doll fashions that expressed an “aggressive, contemporary, youthful style.” But Mattel can’t claim a monopoly over fashion dolls with a bratty look or attitude, or dolls sporting trendy clothing–these are all unprotectable ideas.” (emphasis added)

“Substantial similarity” for copyright infringement requires a similarity of expression, not ideas. The key question always is: Are the works substantially similar beyond the fact that they depict the same idea?”

“MGA’s Bratz dolls can’t be considered substantially similar to Bryant’s preliminary sketches simply because the dolls and sketches depict young, stylish girls with big heads and an attitude. Yet this appears to be how the district court reasoned”.

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