'Barbie Girl' Gets Stamp Of Approval From Supreme Court

Mattel's request to reopen trademark/defamation suit turned down.

The Supreme Court on Monday turned down toy maker Mattel's request to reopen its 1997 trademark infringement and defamation suit against MCA Records over Aqua's dance hit "Barbie Girl."

The high court issued its decision without comment, letting stand a federal appeals court ruling dismissing the lawsuit on the grounds that the song was parody and protected as free speech.

Mattel had claimed that "Barbie Girl" defamed Barbie with sexual innuendo. In the song, singer Lene Grawford Nystrøm refers to herself as a "blonde bimbo " and sings, "I'm a Barbie girl, in my Barbie world/ Life in plastic, it's fantastic/ You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere." The company also said the song confused listeners into thinking the company backed it.

MCA defended the song as social commentary and stickered the album, Aquarium, with a disclaimer that noted the song was not "created or approved" by the maker of Barbie dolls.

After losing in lower courts, Mattel continued to appeal. Saying that "the parties are advised to chill," Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski upheld a lower court ruling that threw out Mattel's suit as well as MCA's countersuit for defamation last summer (see "Finally, We Can Enjoy 'Barbie Girl' With A Clear Conscience").

"The problem arises when trademarks transcend their identifying purpose," Kozinski wrote at the time. "Some trademarks enter our public discourse and become an integral part of our vocabulary. How else do you say that something's 'the Rolls Royce of its class'? What else is a quick fix, but a Band-Aid? ... Once imbued with such expressive value, the trademark becomes a word in our language and assumes a role outside the bounds of trademark law."

Further, the judge ruled, the lyrics confirm that the use of the trademark is designed to convey a message about the song and not to identify the product's producer. "If we see a painting titled 'Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup,' we're unlikely to believe that Campbell's has branched into the art business," Kozinski wrote. "Nor, upon hearing Janis Joplin croon, 'Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?' would we suspect that she and the carmaker had entered into a joint venture."

"We always contended that the suit involved creative expression and free speech," MCA spokesperson Lillian Matulic said. "We are happy that the court let stand the ruling dismissing this lawsuit."

"Obviously we are very disappointed," Mattel spokesperson Jules Andres said. "We think the standard set by the [court] will make it very difficult for companies to protect their trademarks."

Mattel earns $1.5 billion or more annually in Barbie sales, according to the company's quarterly earnings reports. MCA sold an estimated 1.4 million copies of the recording.