Barbie and Brand Control: The Power of Licensing and Trade Mark Protection

Sharon Givoni Consulting Licensing, Trade marks
Credit: Arunachal Art C (Unsplash)

Barbie and Brand Control: The Power of Licensing and Trade Mark Protection

In her recent webinar titled “IP Law in Plastic – It’s Fantastic! A Mattel Masterclass in IP Law,” Sharon Givoni gave a comprehensive exploration of various intellectual property (IP) topics was undertaken. This article considers trade marks and licensing in the context of Mattel and its Barbie doll as canvassed in the webinar as it was an area that people showed a lot of interest in.


From its inception, Barbie has been more than just a doll; she’s a brand, a lifestyle, and a cultural symbol. This blog explores how Mattel has navigated the complex world of IP laws to protect and control the Barbie brand through licensing.

The Genesis of Barbie

As many people know, Barbie’s story began with Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel Inc., who was inspired by a German doll named Bild Lilli.

Contrary to popular belief, Bild Lilli was not a sex worker but a character from a comic strip, often depicted in suggestive clothing and scenarios.

While Barbie was based on Bild Lilli, Mattel’s aim was to transform her into a wholesome figure, suitable for children. Specifically, Barbie was given a softer, more child-appropriate look, and her clothing was curated to reflect a more innocent and versatile image.

Barbie (also known as Barbara Millicent Roberts) was positioned as a role model for young girls, with Mattel wanting the doll to be seen as a source of inspiration and imagination. Definitely not a sexualised doll.

Trade Mark Challenges and Triumphs

Initially, securing the Barbie trade mark wasn’t straightforward.

Ruth Handler faced several rejections from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) before finally acquiring the rights and this marked the first step in a long journey of protecting the Barbie brand. Now, Mattel allegedly has over 1000 trade marks for the word BARBIE alone around the world, 24 of those being in Australia.

The power of trade mark registrations

Trade marks are crucial for Mattel, especially the Barbie mark, which is arguably one of their most important IP assets.

It’s not just about the name; it’s about the image and reputation associated with Barbie.

Trade mark registration grants Mattel exclusive rights to use the Barbie name and logo, effectively giving them a monopoly and allowing them to control and manage the use of the Barbie brand extensively.

When it comes to licensing for instance, Mattel gets to choose what products use Barbie and how. This selective process is a direct benefit of their trade mark rights, allowing them to actively prevent the use of Barbie in sexualised contexts, safeguarding her image as a role model for children. The trade mark rights thus serve as a tool for Mattel to maintain the integrity and desired public perception of the Barbie brand.

If a third party attempts to use the Barbie name or likeness in a way that contradicts Mattel’s brand values or targets an adult audience in a sexualised manner, Mattel has the legal grounds to intervene.

It can use its trade mark rights to keep Barbie as a symbol of innocence and inspiration, rather than being co-opted into contexts that could tarnish her image. Mattel’s vigilant protection of the Barbie trade mark is thus not just about maintaining commercial control, but also about preserving the cultural and moral values that Barbie represents for millions of children around the world.

This is especially important in today’s media-rich environment, where brands can be easily manipulated and shared. Let’s look at a case point.

The “Barbie’s Playpen” case discussed below, exemplifies the critical importance of trade mark control and the challenges that arise when a brand’s image is misappropriated.

Barbie’s Just Not That Kind of Girl

In the “Barbie’s Playpen” case, in 1999, Mattel faced a direct challenge to the wholesome image of their iconic Barbie doll. Its lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Federal Court, targeted an Internet website named “Barbie’s Playpen,” which featured adult content.

This website presented women with exaggerated proportions similar to the Barbie doll and engaged in explicit activities – hardly the child-friendly, inspirational image that Mattel wanted to portray! So it might not surprise you to read that Mattel successfully argued that the website infringed the Barbie trade mark.

Licensing Trade Marks

The necessity of protecting Barbie’s image through licensing becomes even more apparent in light of such challenges. Under Australian law, specifically Section 8 of the Trade Marks Act (Cth), licensing is a key element in trade mark control.

Mattel meticulously manages licences, ensuring that Barbie’s image remains consistent and aligned with its brand values. This control starts at product design and extends to marketing and distribution, maintaining Barbie’s integrity across various platforms and products.

When licensing the Barbie name on products like band-aids, Crocs and clothing, Mattel is incredibly diligent in ensuring brand consistency. This is crucial for maintaining the integrity and recognisability of the Barbie brand. Licensees are given strict guidelines on fonts, colours, imagery, and messaging to ensure that the visual representation of Barbie remains consistent across all products.

Through its licensing arrangements, it also retains the right to inspect and approve products before their release, ensuring they meet high standards and accurately represent the Barbie brand.

Mattel insists on “Pink letter law”

In 2022 Mattel took legal action against Rap Snacks Inc., alleging that their “Barbie-Que Honey Truffle” potato chips, branded with Nicki Minaj, infringed its trade mark rights. Through its registered trade marks, Mattel was able to successfully stop the unauthorised use of the word “BARBIE”.

However, Mattel did not always succeed in protecting the Barbie brand. For example, in the case involving the song “I’m a Barbie Girl” by Aqua, the court ruled in 2002 that the song was a parody and Mattel’s claim of trade mark infringement failed.

Quality control and trade mark licensing

Quality control is a significant aspect of this process.

Whether it’s a Barbie-themed band-aid or a pair of Crocs, each product must adhere to the same standards of quality and design. Mattel is vigilant in ensuring that the Barbie name is associated only with products that are appropriate for the brand’s wholesome and child-friendly image.

Licensing agreements include clauses that allow Mattel to enforce these standards. There’s often a feedback and approval process where Mattel reviews and suggests modifications to ensure that the final product meets its strict branding requirements.

While maintaining consistency, Mattel also adapts the Barbie brand to current trends and consumer preferences, ensuring that the brand remains relevant and appealing.

Case Study: Mattel’s Licensing of the Barbie Brand

Imagine Mattel licenses the Barbie brand to “BrightKids Wear” for a children’s clothing line. Section 8 of the Trade Marks Act (Cth) becomes critical here, as this section deals with the concept of an ‘authorised user’. Under Section 8, an ‘authorised user’ is someone who uses the trade mark under the control of the owner.

This control is essential to ensure that the trade mark continues to function as a “badge of origin”, indicating that the goods or services come from a single source – in this case, Mattel.

One critical point to remember is that this control must be actual and not just contractual. Mattel would need to exercise oversight of the nature and quality of the goods or services to which the trade mark is applied.

In the case study, Mattel’s involvement in approving designs, setting quality standards, and inspecting manufacturing processes ensures that BrightKids Wear garments remain under Mattel’s control. This control is vital for maintaining the trade mark’s validity. If the goods (in this case, children’s clothing) bearing the Barbie trade mark are not perceived as originating from Mattel, or if the quality and nature of these goods vary significantly from Mattel’s standards.

This could lead to the trade mark being challenged and potentially revoked.


In conclusion, Mattel’s strategic use of IP laws, particularly trade marks and licensing, has been instrumental in safeguarding the Barbie brand.

This approach ensures that Barbie remains a positive and influential figure, consistent across different platforms and products.

Trade Mark Licensing Tips

Here are some tips that you can take from the above:

  • One – Consistency is Key – Firstly, you must ensure that your brand is represented consistently across all licensed products. This includes adherence to specific guidelines on fonts, colours, and imagery.
  • Two – Quality Control – Secondly, the licensor needs to maintain high standards of quality for all products associated with the brand. In our view, inspections and approvals are essential.
  • Three – Don’t drop the ball. – Thirdly, a licensor needs to stay actively involved in the licensing process. This means exercising actual control over the nature and quality of the goods or services to which your trade mark is applied, as per legal requirements like Section 8 of the Trade Marks Act (Cth). It’s not enough to leave them with a document and rules to follow – you need to check that they are being followed to a “T”.

Disclaimer: This article provides general information and does not constitute legal advice. To address specific legal matters, consult a legal professional.