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‘Barbie nightmare’ may be over

Appeals court rules against Mattel in photographer case

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"Barbie Enchilada" is part of a 78-piece photo series by Tom Forsythe using the dolls.

“Barbie Enchilada” is part of a 78-piece photo series by Tom Forsythe using the dolls.

Tom Forsythe

Tom Forsythe, a self-taught photographer from Kanab, can finally relax. His Barbie doll nightmare of the past five years is over.

The bad dream began on Aug. 23, 1999, when Mattel filed a copyright and trademark infringement suit against the photographer for incorporating its celebrated Barbie doll in his work.

In 1997, Forsythe produced a series of 78 photographs entitled "Food Chain Barbie," in which he depicted a nude Barbie in various absurd and often sexualized positions, juxtaposed with vintage kitchen appliances. He was attempting to satirize society's conventional-beauty myth and acceptance of women as objects.

"I undertook the project with a full knowledge that what I was doing was a perfectly legal parody, satire, critique of the Barbie doll and what it stood for," the 46-year-old artist said during a telephone interview.

Mattel didn't find it all that funny and filed suit, suggesting that Forsythe's use of Barbie could impair the value of the doll, as well as other licensed Mattel products.

The company lost its case, and in December, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Mattel's appeal, saying Forsythe had a First Amendment right to parody the iconic doll. The panel also said Mattel's lawsuit "may have been groundless and unreasonable."

The question of legal fees was sent back to U.S. District Court Judge Ronald S.W. Lew in Los Angeles, who in a nine-page ruling last week instructed Mattel to pay the photographer's legal fees and expenses of more than $1.8 million.

"I couldn't have asked for anything more," Forsythe said. "My throat's getting a little sore from talking about it, but other than that, it's a great victory. With the $300,000 Mattel was previously ordered to pay at the appeals court level, the settlement, according to Forsythe, is actually $2.1 million.

Ironically, court documents state that the "Food Chain Barbie" series never grossed more than $3,700.

"This case," said Forsythe, "is certainly going to give artists who are interested in critiquing brands a lot more freedom to do that. The principles of fair use have been obvious for a long time."

Mattel spokeswoman Lisa Marie Bongiovanni said Monday the company had not made a decision on whether to appeal. "Mattel is still very committed to vigorously protecting our intellectual property," Bongiovanni said. "For us, our trademarks are among our most valuable assets."

Today Forsythe is working on another series, entitled "Personal Illusions" — photographic images of people "in front of reflective distortion material." The idea is to portray differences between a person's self-image and how others see him.

"But I haven't photographed a Barbie doll since 1998."

To purchase prints from "Food Chain Barbie" visit www.tomforsythe.com, but be prepared to wait — the site is very popular at the moment.


Contributing: The Associated Press

E-mail: gag@desnews.com