A few years ago, Bratz dolls dismayed parents whose little girls were captivated by the toys exaggerated hips and lips. The Bratz girls, though, packed legal smarts into their makeup-slathered plastic heads. Last week, Jade, Sasha and friends won a court victory thats good for the free-market economy.
Bratz debuted in 2001, sending the “whos-raising-our-children” punditry into spasms over turning preteens into tartlets. Bratzs success sent Mattel into hysterics, too. Mattel, maker of Barbie, was a bigger company than Bratzs maker, MGA -- but Bratz cut into Barbies sales.
Mattel pouted for a while and then began a court battle. In 2004, Mattel accused a former Barbie clothing designer, Carter Bryant, of stealing the idea for Bratz. The toy giant claimed Bryant came up with the Bratz concept while working for Mattel, but then brought the idea to MGA.
In 2008, a federal jury agreed. The judge directed MGA to hand custody of the dolls to Mattel. In 2010, an appeals court reversed the verdict. Another jury convened this winter. Last week, this jury decided that Bratz belonged to MGA.
The doll fight shows that intellectual-property disputes are not childs play. Mattel claimed ownership because Bryant had signed an “inventions agreement” that governed anything he created -- even at home -- while on the Mattel payroll.
The two sides disagreed on everything, from the validity of the agreement to whether the deal covered doll design or doll clothing design to whether Bryant had found his inspiration while he was out of work, in between stints at Mattel.
Theft in such cases isnt clear-cut. If a chemist for a shampoo company takes a crate of chemicals home, thats theft. If she toils away for eight hours and comes up with nothing, but then claims that she came up with a brilliant idea while taking a shower, thats harder to prove. Execution of an idea matters, too.
Companies from toy makers to investment banks try to lock up “their” ideas with agreements such as the one Mattel made with Bryant. But they cannot easily monitor and control peoples thoughts -- and strict agreements can drive away prospective workers who envision future careers as entrepreneurs.
Moreover, “inventions agreements” and non-compete clauses can be worthless in the hands of a good attorney who argues, for example, that a businessman isnt competing against his former employer, because he has invented his own niche.
Meanwhile, jurors are Americans who nurture a soft spot for the corporate drone who wants to escape the cubicle. Judges, too, often respect a corporate alumnus right to make a living in the only field he knows.
The Mattel ruling will be a headache for big companies. But its good for the economy, because it creates a natural check on size.
Size has its merits. Big companies wield pricing power over advertisers and vendors. But size can be a burden, too. It layers bureaucracy between executives and creators, making companies vulnerable to nimbler competitors.
Companies dont generate ideas, people do. Google, for example, lets workers devote some “work” time to pursuing their own work-related interests. But it risks nurturing bright employees who then decide that theyd rather strike off on their own. This danger is partly why big companies often buy ideas by purchasing startups.
Competition, not courts, should have decided the Mattel/Bratz dispute. Mattel should have determined long ago to treat Bratz as the girl whom it couldnt pin down - and then moved on to another pretty face. Indeed, more recently, Mattels American Girl franchise has thrived.
Mattel is lucky that the Bratz case hasnt captured public attention. Unlike the Winklevoss twins, whose dispute with Mark Zuckerberg over Facebooks creation was immortalized in “The Social Network,” Mattel hasnt been exposed so nakedly as a sore loser. Image-obsessed Barbie wouldnt like that outcome.
Original Source: http://washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/2011/04/manhattan-moment-hard-see-who-are-real-brats-toy-war#ixzz1Kp2m5lN2