Bratz copyright lawsuit tossed

You can't copyright an idea, even if the idea is grotesquely disproportionate images of young women.

A court recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by Brooklyn photographer Bernard Belair against the company behind the Bratz dolls, despite its admission that the toy's design was directly inspired by his work.

"Although the Bratz dolls may indeed bring to mind the image that Belair created, Belair cannot monopolize the abstract concept of an absurdly large-headed, long limbed, attractive, fashionable woman," Judge Shira A. Scheindlin wrote. "He has a copyright over the expressions of that idea as they are specifically articulated ... but he may not prevent others from expressing the same idea in their different ways."

Belair registered his design, depicting the physically-distorted women, in the late 1990s. It appeared in an ad for Steve Madden shoes placed in the August, 1999 edition of Seventeen magazine. Carter Bryant, creator of the Bratz characters, included the advertisement in an inspiration pack given to sculptor Margaret Leahy. According the the court opinion, Leahy "hung the image on her wall by her workspace and used it to help her create the initial Bratz sculpt."

The court agreed that there were substantial similarities between the ad and the prototype Bratz, but it also counted various differences, and noted that by the time the designs were finalized, they no longer contained elements specific to the original.

"In the context of toys, and particularly toys that replicate human or quasi-human forms, differences in physical features, clothing, and accoutrements matter," Scheindlin wrote. "... It is undisputed that MGA was aware of the Steve Madden look and sought to capitalize on it. But that is not enough to justify a finding of infringement. Stirring one’s memory of a copyrighted character is not the same as appearing to be substantially similar to that character, and only the latter is infringement.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2009, isn't MGA Entertainment's first rodeo. It was sued in 2004 by Bryant's former employer, Mattel, which initially won control over the toy line only to lose a retrial in spectacular fashion, being ordered to pay MGA $300m in damages and costs. Mattel has filed a notice to appeal.

Press release [PR Newswire]
Bratz Copied, But Didn't Infringe [Property, intangible]
Belair v. MGA entertainment [Lexology]


      1. I worked a stint for Mattel once. Trust me, they didn’t skimp on lawyer fees either… but they lost their suit against MGA too. I know it seems almost too incredible to be true, but this could be a genuine instance of common sense winning out in an intellectual property case. (Fashion sense, not so much.)

    1. While I would normally applaud such a decision, in this case I wish they would have made an exception, forcing the manufacturer to halt production of those creepy things immediately.

  1. Am I correct in assuming that had the roles been reversed  – as in Bratz suing Belair (ludicrous as it sounds) – for copyright infringement, so long as they are not “specifically articulated”, he would be ok?

  2. Belair cannot monopolize the abstract concept of an absurdly large-headed, long limbed, attractive, fashionable woman

    Has the judge seen either the original ad, or the dolls? “Attractive” and “fashionable” do not belong in that sentence, especially for the original ad which is grotesquely awful.

      1. Apple will probably get around to taking them to court over that once they wrap up their current court case about Samsung android phones/tablets infringing patents by looking too much like the iPhone and iPad

  3. The whole copyright thing is really going crazy … soon you will not be able to play a song because it has a single note from famous song X in it … or paint a picture because it uses the color RED because Bono is sitting on that … 

  4. Every time I see a Bratz doll, I still have to suppress the impulse to scream, “WHERE IS YOUR NOSE?”

    1. Come on now, years ago the victims of nasal tuberculosis and syphilis lived in shame, hiding their disfigurement from the world. Show some mercy!

  5. Someone liked that idea so much that they stole it?

    See, humanity, THIS is why we can’t have nice things.

  6. As a male my ideal disproportionate female figure would be on Barbie doll levels. Unless there is something in those big heads (having watched the Bratz cartoon with my niece, the indication is no.)

    Anyways, I thought it was the other way round. There was an ad for Steve Madden in Melbourne that got Hitler moustached and tagged with “Bratz ripoff!”. Damn tweens…

    1. Seriously, this is what I thought of when I first saw Bratz. Once I got over the attack of the uncanny valley of course.

  7. See, the dolls don’t bother me a fraction of the photo. The photo is real people uncannily dysmorphed; the doll’s just a cartoon, with a much thicker layer of unreality between the design and consumers’ self-image.

    1. I’ve actually felt the same way. The dolls remind me of certain anime styles and they’re clearly cartoons. I don’t like them, but they don’t *disturb* me. 

  8. I know it shouldn’t influence my thinking, but I’ve always found those Steve Madden ads so repellent that I can’t help feeling a touch of schadenfreude at the news that the photographer lost. They were all over the place a few years ago and I loathe them (and, by association, the whole Madden brand).

    Of course, the dolls are equally hideous, so if a passing meteorite devastates the Bratz factory (miraculously without loss of life), my day will be complete. 

  9. Yo Bratz, Japan called. They want their royalties for the whole “large head, exaggerated proportions” thing.

  10. Funny how when a corporation needs to use an individual’s work, copyrights don’t apply.  You can bet if the reverse happened, the Bratz company would sue and win.

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