One of the chores inherent in the practice of law is that one has to read a lot of really REALLY dry court opinions. It’s always nice when you find judges out there who recognize this, and make some effort to keep it interesting. One of my favorites from law school has always been Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Records, Inc., 296 F.3d 894 (9th Cir. 2002). Well, this week saw an interesting footnote added to that opinion.
The Back Story
Most will probably remember that there was an annoying pop song, which was recorded back in the 90’s, called “Barbie Girl.” The group Aqua‘s single claim to fame was a huge success, despite being about as appealing to listen to as nails on a chalkboard — don’t let the number of stars assigned to this YouTube clip fool you.
If anything, I have to admit that I find the song amusing, and unlike 2 Live Crew’s “Pretty Woman,” I can believe that Aqua actually created the song to poke fun at the materialistic nature of Mattel’s Barbie franchise, instead of coming up with that justification after a lawsuit has been filed. True to form in those days, Mattel was not amused with Aqua’s parody, and decided to do what it always did back then… file an infringement lawsuit. While the case was pending, a Mattel spokesperson went on record, criticizing the defendants for not respecting their intellectual property rights, which of course spurred a defamation counterclaim.
The trial court made short work of both sides’ allegations, dismissing all with a summary judgment. The court determined that the Aqua song incorporated Mattel’s trademark as a means of identifying Mattel, not to unfairly compete with the toy company. That’s fair use.
Everyone appeals, hilarity ensues
Hon. Alex Kozinski (who is probably better known for more recent events) sets the tone for his now-famous opinion in the first line: “If this were a sci-fi melodrama, it might be called Speech-Zilla meets Trademark Kong.” From there, he explores a brief history of the Barbie doll’s origins as an adult toy, modeled after a German hooker — something I’m sure that Mattel would rather not have reported on. Moving on to an expert legal analysis of the balance between the First Amendment and intellectual property rights, Kozinski concludes by boiling down the defamation claim as unsustainable:
MCA filed a counterclaim for defamation based on the Mattel representative’s use of the words “bank robber,” “heist,” “crime” and “theft.” But all of these are variants of the invective most often hurled at accused infringers, namely “piracy.” No one hearing this accusation understands intellectual property owners to be saying that infringers are nautical cutthroats with eyepatches and peg legs who board galleons to plunder cargo. In context, all these terms are nonactionable “rhetorical hyperbole,” Gilbrook v. City of Westminster, 177 F.3d 839, 863 (9th Cir. 1999). The parties are advised to chill.
Mattel slunk away, licking the wounds of its latest intellectual property litigation defeat. For the next several years, it appeared as if they had not learned their lesson (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). However, yesterday morning, the doll maker launched an ad campaign that demonstrates that they may have finally
hired a decent attorney who gives better advice grown up. (source)
This story was originally published on GaneshaFish.com