Does The Distorted Barbie violate Mattel's copyright?

Is this image illegal?
'Kate Moss' Barbie

updated October 30 1997

On October 16 I received an email from my internet provider requesting that I remove my web page from the Internet. They explained that a lawyer from Mattel had contacted them and claimed that The Distorted Barbie violates Mattel's copyright on Barbie. The email stated

...Interport is in a position of potential liability... We hope that you would appreciate our position and, as such, voluntarily remove the Web page from the Internet until the issue is resolved between Mattel, Inc. and yourself. Interport must have the Web page removed as of Wednesday 22 October 1997.

On October 17, I received the following letter from the lawyer for Mattel, forwarded to me by Interport:

Currently I'm aware of at least seven other Barbie parody web sites that have received the same or a very similar letter. At this time the authors of several of these sites have decided to remove their pages from the web, while others are steadfast. Here are some sites that Mattel is trying to shut down.

Mattell has a history of carefully (or even agressively) protecting their copyright of the Barbie image. The following is from an article describing Mattel's attack on a collector's publication:

Mattel filed a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles against the publisher of several collector-oriented periodicals that mix flattering photos of Barbie with barbed new product reviews and occasional satire. The suit accusing the Miller's publications-an assortment of newspapers, magazines and price guides-with copyright and trademark infringement aroused the Pink Power movement.
Mattel refused to back down regarding the Miller's publications, maintaining that the toy company also has rights. Ann Parducci, one of the Mattel vice presidents at the meeting, said the publications unfairly profit from using Barbie's images without permission. She believes that the Pink Anger movement, while loud, is small.
Challenged this week by a collector at Mattel's annual meeting, an event punctuated by screenings of Barbie commercials, Chief Executive Jill E. Barad stood her ground. A photo spread in a recent issue of Miller's put Barbie in an unflattering light, she said.

"It showed Barbie with alcohol, Barbie with pills," Barad said. While professing that Mattel "loves the collectors," Barad was unambiguous about her priorities: "What I do in my job, first and foremost, is protect Barbie."


In her book Forever Barbie, M. G. Lord writes:

"Mattel wishes to impose its authorized vision on the public, but the public has other plans. Barbie colonized people's imaginations in childhood, and they are impelled to bear witness."

she continues:

"... the corporation has three choices: It must co-opt the artist's work... It must commission art and impose 'guidelines.' Or it must do its best to squash it."

The Wired article: Cease and Desist Barbie

Since my provider was showing no interest in supporting my site, I thought it best to proceed cautiously (or face being shut down altogether). I distorted all the Barbie images to an extreme, effectively erasing the image of Barbie from my site, and on October 22 sent email to my provider explaining that I had addressed the copyright issue.

My provider responded to Mattel, informing them of my changes, and wrote that they considered the matter to be resolved.

On October 27 I received another email from Interport informing me that the matter was in fact not resolved, and that now the lawyer had an issue with the Barbie trademark. The email from Interport stated:

He does not think the modifications you have made are sufficient. He was citing a recent law passed in 1996 called the Trademark Dilution Act which protects famous trademarks from apropos, dilution. He would like you to call him to discuss what changes do need to be made.

At this time I am discussing new names for the site.

The Distorted Barbie at Hotwired: Net Surf by Joey Anuff

I created this site to explore the phenomenon of Barbie. Not Barbie as a toy or collectible, but Barbie as a symbol that a culture has created, absorbed, shaped, and been shaped by. The site is a visual exploration. Just as children mutilate their dolls to create new stories and meanings, so too I mutilated Barbie, created new faces for her, changed her weight, her expression, added emotion or removed that tiny shred of emotion that she normally has. Through this I dissected the meaning that Barbie carries. I wanted to find the core of this symbol, to discover and reveal the source of meaning.

Many themes came out of this exploration. Religion, sexuality, communication. Barbie can compete with any of the great religious symbols of our time. She is an active representative of consumerism, a spokesperson for the American economic system. She is a model for feminine appearance. She transcends national and language boundaries and is one of the most powerful teaching tools of our time. Everybody knows who Barbie is.

It is perhaps not surprising that my site has come under the scrutiny of Mattel. Their attack is grounded less in profit than on preserving the fiction of Barbie. Like any great symbol, her meaning must be preserved. If her meaning is distorted, she will cease to exist.