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.