Barbie And Bratz Go To Court

The tiny, fake fur was flying as the Barbie-Bratz court battle wrapped up Thursday, with toy industry giant Mattel Inc. and upstart MGA Entertainment Inc. both claiming ownership of the hugely successful Bratz line of dolls.

MGA, which seven years ago debuted the saucy Bratz doll, has maintained from the May 27 start of the trial that Mattel was trying to unfairly stomp out competition to its faltering Barbie empire.

“For 40 years Barbie was the only doll in town,” Tom Nolan, lawyer for Van Nuys-based MGA, said in his closing argument. “And then Bratz came in and knocked her off her pedestal.”

Mattel, headquartered in El Segundo, sued in 2004, claiming that Bratz — known for hip-hugging outfits and bare midriffs that have given some parents fits — were secretly created by one of its own Barbie designers, Carter Bryant, even though he had an exclusivity contract with the company.

Mattel lawyer John Quinn argued to the jury that MGA knew of Bryant’s contract when it committed to developing the Bratz line.

“They helped him because they needed a successful product,” Quinn said. “MGA was with him every step of the way.”

Shortly before the trial began, Bryant and Mattel reached a settlement, the terms of which were sealed by the court and have not been revealed. Bryant has earned more than $30 million in royalties from his Bratz brainchild.

That left MGA to slug it out alone with Mattel, which wants a stake in the Bratz franchise.

The fact that the Bratz dolls have been a sizzling success was one of the few things not in question during the proceedings in U.S. District Court in Riverside. MGA is a private company and doesn’t disclose its earnings, but Mattel contends that its smaller rival has made $500 million a year off Bratz sales, licensing and other revenue. Some analysts place the total as high as $2 billion annually.

During five hours of closing arguments, the lawyers revisited evidence and testimony but, freed of the restrictions that have to be obeyed when questioning witnesses, the gloves came off.

“That’s not evidence,” MGA’s Nolan snarled at one point. “That’s drama.”

He was speaking of Mattel’s questioning the honesty of Bryant’s mother and his life partner, both of whom testified that the designer showed them Bratz drawings in 1998. That’s when Bryant was living with his parents in Missouri and not working for Mattel.

“Mothers don’t lie,” Nolan told the jury.

Quinn was careful not to brand as a liar the silver-haired Jane Bryant, whose videotaped deposition was shown in court.

“Mr. Bryant’s mom sees him through the filter of the greatest love you can have for someone,” he told the jury. “We are saying her testimony should not change yours.”

As for Bryant’s partner, Richard Irmen, Quinn said, “He and Mr. Bryant share a life together. They also share $30 million.”

One of the most discussed pieces of evidence was an ordinary-looking spiral notebook that Bryant used to make notes about a 1999 bank account. Mattel’s Quinn called it the “surprise evidence” in the case.

A paper expert testified in the trial that some of the first Bratz drawings had been done in the notebook and then torn out. It challenged Bryant’s assertion that he no longer had another notebook that he said he used for the first drawings. And Mattel argued that it showed the true Bratz birth came in 1999 when Bryant was working at Mattel.

Nolan dismissed its significance, saying that Bryant uses notebooks randomly, not sequentially. “He grabs a notebook when he needs to make a note,” Nolan said.

And Evidence Eliminator, a software program used on Bryant’s laptop two days before it was scheduled to be examined, was again front and center. Nolan said that Bryant had gotten the program, which can destroy files beyond recovery, to cover the fact that he sometimes looked at pornography.

But Quinn suggested the program might have been used to destroy documents relevant to the case.

There also was much evidence presented that Bryant at least worked on the doll when he was at Mattel. But Nolan argued that the only thing that mattered was when it was actually created.

Bill Price, also arguing for Mattel, got the last word. He said of MGA: “There is a right way and a wrong way to compete, and what you did here is cross that line.”

That being said, the 10 members of the jury were led to a place that’s probably present only in dollhouses for kids who want to grow up to be judges — the jury room.

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