Barbie: A Masterclass on Intellectual Property Ownership

Last weekend whole world was welcomed to the enchanting Barbie movie, where dreams come alive and adventures await! Her mesmerizing journey through captivating stories filled with friendship, courage, and magic. And that magic affected Intellectual Property ownership.


Barbie`s doll case of intellectual property ownership is critical to the cross-platform financial success of companies because it safeguards innovation, establishes market dominance, fosters brand recognition, enables licensing opportunities, creates market entry barriers, enhances a company’s overall value, and provides a defensive strategy against legal challenges. Let`s see it in detail.

Barbie, the iconic doll character that has found its place in millions of homes around the globe, serves as an enlightening case study on the importance of Intellectual Property (IP) ownership. This pivotal toy, birthed from the inventive mind of Mattel, Inc. co-founder Ruth Handler in 1959, has amassed a staggering sales record of over a billion figures worldwide.

Did you know the creation of this iconic franchise is rooted in an IP dispute?

In 1956, Handler came across Bild Lilli, a German toy doll, while on a European vacation with her children, Barbara and Kenneth (who inspired the names Barbie and Ken). Bild Lilli was modelled after a popular comic strip character and gained notoriety among children who revelled in dressing her up in various outfits.


Inspired, Handler returned to the United States and modified the doll’s design, culminating in Barbie’s public presentation at the American International Toy Fair in New York City in 1959. In an unexpected turn, the owners of the Lilli Doll filed a lawsuit against Mattel in 1961. They argued that the design of Barbie infringed on their hip-joint patent and accused Mattel of misleading the public by creating the impression that they had originated the format.


After a few years of legal battle, the case settled, with Mattel purchasing the copyright and patent rights for the Lilli Doll for $21,600 (roughly $212,000 in today’s dollars).


Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2023 that Barbie made her long-awaited live-action film debut. The doll’s big-screen appearance is set for July 21, marking a momentous occasion at last.

Why was this a strategic move of paramount importance?

Owning the copyright endowed Mattel with exclusive rights to control and reproduce Barbie, make derivatives of Barbie (other similar characters and outfits), distribute Barbie, and feature Barbie in public performances (like the 2023 Margot Robbie movie).

Since the 1980s, Mattel’s IP ownership has allowed them to create television shows, cartoons, movies, and an extensive range of media and derivative products based on the original Barbie IP. Had the Lilli Doll lawsuit not been resolved in their favor, it would have jeopardized this freedom and limited their commercial success.

In 2022 alone, Mattel sold about $1.5 billion worth of Barbie dolls., That makes the $212k settlement look like one of the world’s most profitable business deals. A loss in the lawsuit could have halted Barbie’s production as we know it today. Similarly, a payment devoid of IP ownership might have opened the floodgates for additional lawsuits or increased competition.

IP ownership is significant today, with technological advancement proceeding at breakneck speed. As the owner of the Barbie IP, Mattel is the exclusive entity that can commercialize the brand in conjunction with any emerging technology, whether AI, VR and AR. This control is vital for maintaining the brand’s uniqueness and managing its evolution with technological progress.

The Barbie franchise is a timeless example of the power of IP ownership, showcasing its critical role in brand protection, product evolution, and commercial success. It underlines that strategic legal battles and intelligent investment in IP can unlock limitless opportunities for business growth and innovation.

And this year company took a chance to make more money with Barbie`s IP.  With an impressive $110 million US opening for the movie, we should also admit the increasing influence of trends in the expanding adult toy market. “Any IP can be turned into a film, but not any IP can be turned into a good film,” said former director of Mattel’s Barbie division, Sharon Price John. But this IP success is catching the attention of different brands in the Toy Industry.

The Rich Tapestry of IP Ownership in the Toy Industry

While the story of Barbie paints a clear picture of the significance of IP, the landscape of the toy industry provides numerous other instances of companies leveraging their IP rights.

Lego: Weathering the Storm of Legal Battles

The Lego Group, known worldwide for its distinctive construction blocks, has continually defended its IP rights. Despite many legal battles against imitators such as Mega Bloks and Best-Lock, which have sought to duplicate Lego’s unique brick design,. In the United States, several brick construction toys were similar to LEGO, such as American Bricks, Loc-Blocs, and Tente. In 1984, Tyco began producing Tyco Super Blocks, compatible with LEGO in size, dimensions, and studs. LEGO attempted to sue Tyco for trademark and copyright violations, arguing that while Tyco’s bricks could have been made differently, their exact replication of LEGO’s scale and size ratio constituted an infringement on LEGO’s intellectual property ownership, as LEGO’s base patent had already expired in 1978. Lego’s story demonstrates the importance of innovation, product quality, and creating unique, engaging consumer experiences despite adversarial IP circumstances.

Hasbro and the Transformers Phenomenon

Hasbro’s Transformers toys offer another fascinating instance of a brand effectively utilizing its IP. Hasbro has safeguarded the unique design and functionality of the Transformers toys and has ventured into different media, including movies and cartoons. This successful cross-media expansion has further ingrained the brand in popular culture, enhancing its market appeal.

Nintendo: Charting a Course from Video Games to Toy Figures

Though primarily known for its video games, Nintendo also offers an interesting case study in IP management.  Trademark protection can cover the title of a game, its logo, and even the names of characters within the game, as demonstrated by registering trademarks for characters like Pikachu and Mario. By taking swift legal action against any perceived infringement, Nintendo has managed to maintain its brand integrity and consumer trust.

Conclusion: The Pervasive Power of IP Ownership

From Barbie to Nintendo Toy figures, these narratives underscore the immense power of IP ownership in the toy industry. Whether protecting original designs or responsibly leveraging popular IPs, a robust IP strategy plays an instrumental role in maintaining a company’s market position, fostering innovation, and driving business growth.

In an industry increasingly influenced by advancements in technology, such as AI, VR, and AR, the importance of IP management can only grow. As these toy industry giants illustrate, careful navigation of the IP landscape can open a world of opportunities and continuous evolution. As such, today’s toy companies must embrace astute IP strategies to navigate the ever-changing play landscape successfully.

Hanna Buklieieva
Marketing Coordinator IP and R&D Solutions Posts

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