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L.A. Judge Rules Artist Can Parody Barbie in Artwork

Barbie, the world's most famous plastic bombshell, is now legally free to pose nude in sexually explicit or controversial artistic photographs, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled on Monday in what legal experts called "a blow" to the world's No. 1 toymaker, Mattel Inc. [MAT].

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew ruled on Monday that the free speech rights of Utah artist Tom Forsythe -- who was sued by Mattel two years ago after he parodied Barbie dolls in a series of photographs meant as a stinging social comment -- outweigh the company's trademarks and intellectual property rights as they relate to the 42-year-old doll.

"The ruling doesn't mean it's open season (to exploit products by) Mattel, it means there is a certain amount of breathing room for artists who want to use a commercial symbol that has tremendous cultural meaning, for purposes of artistic expression," Forsythe's attorney Simon Frankel said.

Adrian Pruetz, an attorney for Mattel, was not immediately available for comment Monday.

Forsythe's limited edition photographs were taken in 1998 and use Barbie in an attempt to skewer the stereotyping of women and commodification of female bodies.

Exhibited several times in the Western United States and offered for sale on Forsythe's Web site (http://www.creativefreedomdefense.org/), they depict, among other images, a "Missionary Barbie," unclothed on her back with an electric beater pointed towards her body in a suggestive way; "Barbie Enchiladas," naked Barbies wrapped in a tortillas, covered with tomato sauce, and lying in a baking pan; a "Heatwave" Barbie who reclines in a toaster oven, a "Malted Barbie," who peeks demurely out of a milkshake machine, and "Blue Ice" Barbie, who poses nude in a martini glass.

NOT THE FIRST AND NOT THE LAST

Although they may be offensive to some Barbie fans, the photos nevertheless are allowable under "fair use" laws because they do not constitute commercial use of the Barbie or affect Mattel's sales, Lew ruled.

In addition, Lew said that Forsythe was not violating trademark law with his Barbie art because Mattel was not able to sufficiently prove that he created confusion among customers over Barbie's true nature as a child's toy or that his product constituted a "commercial" rather than "expressive" use of the Barbie doll.

Legal experts called the ruling a "blow" to Mattel and other corporations that routinely sue artists who attempt to use their symbols in creative expression.

"People are aware of the issue of censorship but they are not very sensitized to (widespread) corporate censorship that's out there limiting artistic expression," said Forsythe's lead counsel Annette Hurst who took on the case pro bono and will now try to recover legal fees from Mattel.

"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," Hurst said.

There are no monetary damages to be paid and unless Mattel decides to appeal Monday's judgment will mark the end of the case.

Forsythe is now trying to raise money to cover his costs. In terms of his art he said he is moving onto other subject matter: "I'm not the first person to parody Barbie and I'm sure I won't be the last."

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