Respect and Integrity

Case Study: Barbie

Mark Napier created "The Distorted Barbie," a web-art installation that displayed digitally altered images of Barbie dolls in order to comment on Barbie as a pop-icon and cultural/commercial symbol. He published it both on his own site at Interport and in the e-zine Enterzone. At a site maintained by Napier admirers, you will find the following description of Napier's work. "Artist Mark Napier is the author and creator of The Distorted Barbie, a web-based exploration in words and images of the impact Barbie and all her baggage have had on our bodies and culture. The site is a poetic and potent piece of Internet art."

After discovering the site, Mattel sent strongly-worded cease-and-desist letters both to Enterzone and to Interport, Napier's internet service provider. Why did Mattel send the letter to Interport and not Napier himself? Should Mattel have any legal claims against Napier? Enterzone? Interport? What are they?

Christian Crumlish, the editor of Enterzone, paid attention to the progress of the Napier controversy. For a time, he followed the saga in a nearly day-to-day account at a site, called "The Daily Barbie." It connected readers to a site which invited people to join the rebellion by creating a "meme," that is, mirroring the site faster than legal teams can ask that it be torn down. The Daily Barbie, and the original rebellion site are no longer available, and It is not clear who began the meme. The rebellion continues, though: the meme site is also available at another location. Will the meme thwart any attempt at enforcement of claims by Mattel?

The creators of the meme ask, "did Brillo sue Warhol?" The implication is that, because Barbie is such a key thread in the fabric of American (and, indeed, global) culture, and because the image of barbie is the easiest and only way of expressing the concept of Barbie, people should be to make a cultural critique using the Barbie image regardless of the copyright and trademark issues involved. Is Napier's work, and the action of those who mirror his site, "fair use?" Should Mattel have any recourse against those who mirror the site? It is possible that Napier is not involved in the meme's struggle to save his work: he might even object to the mirroring of his site. Should he have any recourse against those who mirror and link to his site? For more information on the laws of linking, see the first week's module on Metatags, Linking and Framing.

To what extent does Napier's site differ from fan-'zines and other sites celebrating Barbie? There are many such sites. Examples include pippa's site, entitled "The Dolls, The Dish & the Dollars, and baucoms-barbies. (Mattel maintains its own site as well). Mattel has brought a suit against Miller'$ Magazine for Barbie Doll Collectors and Miller'$ Market Report, print-medium publications about doll collecting and Barbie collecting in particular, and collectors nationwide have had a partially internet-based response to the Miller's suit. Rebel-collectors maintain a site dedicated to the "Pink Anger" movement. The authors of the site urge collectors to maintain a month-long boycott of Mattel and Barbie. The Miller's suit is not yet resolved. If Mattel were to sue those who maintain internet 'zines (or their ISPs), should the outcome be the same as the outcome in the Miller's case? (see baucom's-barbie's opinion on this). Should Mattel have any recourse against those who publicized Pink Anger on the internet?

Would Mattel be able to claim that its "moral rights" have been violated by Napier or by those who maintain Barbie collectors' sites? Do fan-'zines always run the risk of violating moral rights?
(see Gary Larson mini-case-study)

Could a system of licensing and "microcharges," whereby web surfers are charged by site owners for access to sites, and those receipts are paid to companies whose images are published on the web, solve any of the problems discussed above? What would be the drawbacks of such a system?

You are encouraged to address the questions raised by this case study, and any questions of your own on the topic of respect and integrity on the internet, in the various discussion groups in the virtual classroom. For more information on the issues raised in this case study, go to the list of legal and nonlegal resources compiled for this subject.

Mattel is very active in protecting Barbie from alleged infringers. for information on Mattel suits against Nissan and against the band Aqua, click here.