Intellectual Property

Laura Pearson, Intellectual Property Lawyer, Higgs LLP

You’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ve been living in a Barbie world in recent months. The famous Barbie doll and the Hollywood stars in the new Barbie film have been dominating our lives with inescapable headlines, film promotion activities, brand collaborations and social media campaigns. The going’s on have piqued interest – even from those who abandoned their own dolls many years ago – and delivered a much needed hit of fun, nostalgia and catharsis. Not many of our social media accounts will have escaped the obligatory pose (by a friend, of course!) in a pink outfit from within a Barbie doll box.

It’s no accident that Barbie fever seems to have turned the whole world pink! So, how have Mattel, the company that owns Barbie, done it? Well, for many decades, Mattel has maintained a well-planned intellectual property strategy…

Imagination, your brand is your creation. The brand’s success we know today is primarily thanks to Mattel’s forward-thinking and early appreciation of the importance and power of protecting its IP. The cornerstone of Mattel’s success lies in the fact that Barbie is a registered trademark, benefiting from protection for its distinctive brand identity, including its name, logo, and slogan. Mattel’s related IP portfolio is now extensive – including patents, designs, multiple trademarks and copyrights.

To maintain Barbie’s brand integrity and preserve its value, Mattel has fiercely protected its IP over the years and has not shied away from a legal battle or two. However, life in plastic has not always been fantastic for Mattel. In the battle of Barbie vs Bratz, Mattel lost out in the copyright and trade secrets dispute and was ordered to pay MGA’s legal fees to the tune of millions. More recently in June 2023, Mattel asked the US Trademark Office to reject fashion brand Burberry’s proposed “BRBY” trademark on the grounds that it would create confusion with the Barbie brand. This case has not yet concluded but it highlights the willingness of Mattel to continue to defend its brand.

The global marketing blitz in the lead up to the highly anticipated film release has seen Mattel focus on its marketing campaign. Stepping outside its usual market sector of toys, Mattel has tactically collaborated with a wide range of brands and granted others (licensees) the right to produce and sell products and services leveraging the Barbie brand. As a result of these deals we’ve seen things like a Burger King ‘BK Barbie Combo’ cheeseburger with pink sauce and pink milkshake, pink Xbox controllers, a “Zara x Barbie” clothing collection and Barbie Crocs. Barbie also ‘renamed’ London’s Barbican tube station Barbie-can – it seems she really can do anything. The power of a Barbie doll, or rather the IP carefully built around her for decades, is almost unbelievable.

Licencing IP brings with it a raft of benefits of which Mattel is clearly aware. For licensors looking to licence their IP rights, some advantages include generating additional revenue in the form of royalty payments by licensees, tapping into new and exciting markets and increasing brand visibility. Leveraging IP through brand collaborations is becoming increasingly common. These collaborations are documented in licence agreements and cover matters such as exclusivity, the rules around the use of the trade mark to ensure that it is used in the way the owner intends and the duration of the licence. These are important agreements and legal advice should be sought before signing up.

Today Barbie is much more than an iconic doll: it is an IP success story. In the words of Robbie Brenner who heads up Mattel Films, “in the world we’re living in, IP is king”.