October 5, 1997 in Nation/World

Litigation Barbie, Made By Mattel

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:column

If the geniuses running the Mattel toy empire had more brains than their Barbies they’d give Spokane’s Barb and Dan Miller a Malibu beach house.

A real Malibu beach house.

The Millers’ passion to publish magazines and newspapers devoted to the Barbie doll collecting craze has inarguably benefited the California-based toymaker with a Ken’s ransom worth of sales, publicity and good will.

As a reward, however, the Fortune 500 giant wants to sue the Millers into the Barbie Poorhouse for alleged trademark infringement, misappropriation, disparagement and a load of other nasty legal terms that sound very expensive.

Mattel has been positively lawsuit happy of late, filing other, similar heavy-handed accusations.

Time for Dr. Barbie to give these uptight tycoons some little pink Prozac pills.

The pop band Aqua’s satirical hit, “Barbie Doll” inflamed Mattel enough to sue. The Danish musicians are getting big-time MTV exposure with its less-than-worshipful lyrics, such as: “I’m a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world. … Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky.”

Nissan carmakers made the Mattel top tort list for their brilliant, albeit sickeningly overplayed, animated TV commercial that features copycat Barbie, Ken and GI Joe.

If you think toys are all fun and games, don’t bet your Dream Kitchen.

“We want the Millers’ house,” a dead-serious Mattel lawyer reportedly told Chris Lynch, the Millers’ attorney, during a recent meeting.

Barb hears the anecdote and laughs. “Mattel obviously doesn’t know that we rent,” she says.

You have to hand it to these entrepreneurs.

Five years ago, when I first wrote about their publishing ambitions, they were putting out a pint-sized quarterly price guide called Miller$.

Today Miller$ is a full-sized, full-color magazine as slick and glossy as Cosmo. Add to this a monthly newspaper and an annual price guide.

They have a staff of five. Circulation of the magazine, which is designed at the Millers’ South Hill apartment, is more than 30,000 and climbing. Barbie lovers in 28 countries and all 50 states subscribe. The Millers say Wal-Mart wants to stock the magazine in its southern stores.

Such is the big bucks power of the nostalgia-driven Barbie boom. For example: A mint-in-the-box, 1959 No. 1 ponytail Barbie will fetch $10,000.

Mattel lawyers wouldn’t return my telephone request for an interview.

But according to their lawsuit, Mattel contends the Millers publish a magazine “replete with articles, photographs and captions which infringe and/or dilute Mattel’s trademarks, copyright and trade dress.”

What malarkey.

Miller$ really isn’t foundationally so different from Sports Illustrated, Consumer Reports or Car and Driver magazines.

The Millers just happen to cover Barbie, and they do it well. The same First Amendment rights that allow me to refer to the Mattel company as a den of money-grubbing bullies allows the Millers to comment away.

What probably tweaks Mattel most is that the Millers on occasion explore the dark side of sexy Austrian Barbies. Or how Mattel sometimes rips off collectors by offering supposed “exclusive” dolls and then mass marketing them at lower prices later.

This isn’t about Barbie. This is all about greed and control.

That the Millers are fighting giant Mattel shows how serious and sincere they are. They took a dream and had guts enough to see it through. I hope they whip some corporate butt in June when the case is scheduled for trial in Los Angeles.

Maybe then they can buy their own Malibu beach house.

, DataTimes


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