Mattel Repudiated: Decisive Victory for Free Speech in Case Involving Artist's Use of Barbie Doll First Amendment Protects Criticism of Doll and Values It Represents, Says Court

August 13, 2001 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES – In a decisive victory for the free speech rights of artists, a federal court today dismissed Mattel’s lawsuit which sought to stop artist Tom Forsythe from using the Barbie doll in an award-winning series of photographs that comments on the doll and the values it embodies.

“This is a ringing victory for artists’ rights and the First Amendment,” said Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “The court has made clear that Mattel cannot use the legal system to silence artists who want to comment on and parody Mattel’s products.”

The case, Mattel v. Walking Mountain Productions, centered on the corporate control of public symbols and the issue of whether artists have the right to transform the intellectual property of others in order to criticize such symbols and comment on society.

“The intellectual property laws do not grant corporations the right to control all artistic speech concerning the role of products and corporations in our society,” said Annette L. Hurst, lead counsel from the law firm Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin. “We are gratified that Judge Lew’s decisive ruling recognized this important limitation on the copyright and trademark laws.”

Artist Tom Forsythe, of Kanab, Utah, has used Barbie dolls to parody Barbie’s embodiment of America’s culture of consumption and conformism. His “Food Chain Barbie” series of photos appeared in galleries and won critical acclaim in juried competitions.

In August of 1999, Mattel sued the artist for copyright and trademark infringement. The ACLU and the firm Howard, Rice stepped in to stop Mattel’s use of litigation as a method of bullying artists into abandoning their First Amendment rights.

“This ruling shows that might is not always right,” said artist Tom Forsythe. “The judge’s decision is a powerful victory for all feminists who criticize Barbie’s stereotype of women and the unquestioning acceptance that allows Mattel to sell these hyper-sexualized hunks of plastic into millions of American homes.”

“Both copyright and trademark laws allow artists like Mr. Forsythe to use well-recognized cultural symbols such as the Barbie doll to comment on and critique those symbols,” said Simon J. Frankel of Howard, Rice. “Our culture would be greatly impoverished if the law were otherwise.”

Artist Tom Forsythe is now working with the Creative Freedom Defense Fund to help other artists fight corporate censorship of their work.

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