It is a classic tale of industrial espionage: top employees secretly speak to rival firms; surveillance teams follow suspected boardroom moles; computer files are destroyed; billions of dollars are at stake.
But the explosive mix of capitalism and spying that is emerging from a California courthouse does not describe two battling oil giants or ruthless arms manufacturers. Instead it is the battle of the dolls — Bratz vs Barbie — that is captivating a court audience in the city of Riverside.
The top-selling firms from the world of dolls for ”tweenagers” are facing off in a case that is sending shock waves through a corporate world that might naively have assumed toy-makers play nicer than other firms. In fact, it seems the toy industry is unusually brutal.
The case stems from accusations by Mattel, which makes the iconic Barbie doll, that Carter Bryant, the designer of its now arch-rival dolls, Bratz, was still working for it when he came up with the idea. Bratz dolls have created controversy by appearing more sexualised and adult than the traditional Barbie while being marketed to the same audience of young girls. And Bratz have been a global smash hit.
Mattel alleges that Bryant was still its employee when he came up with the ideas for Bratz, which he sold to rival toy-maker MGA Entertainment. The firm is trying to show that Bryant made his initial Bratz sketches for MGA in Mattel company time. Key to proving this are Bryant’s original sketchbooks. Bryant says he tore the sketches out of a notebook he used in 1998, while on leave. But Mattel has obtained scientific paper analysis that it claims shows that the sketches of the dolls came from notebooks he used in 1999 when at work.
Adding insult to injury, Bryant has admitted using Ken and Barbie doll body parts to come up with a Bratz prototype. ”I used some Ken boots. I think it was a Barbie body,” Bryant said in court, sounding like a toy-making Dr Frankenstein.
There is also the question of the sinisterly named ”Evidence Eliminator”, the moniker of the computer software Bryant bought and ran through his laptop only days before investigators copied its contents. Mattel believes he was destroying potentially incriminating files to do with Bratz. Bryant contends he was erasing unwanted pornographic ”pop up” ads that had infected his computer from the internet.
The sheer sums of cash at stake are enormous. The Bratz line of dolls, with their signature bare midriffs and sexy clothes, are worth about $1,9-billion a year. Perhaps that is why details emerging from the court case have painted a picture of a truly cut-throat industry. Mattel hired private investigators to keep an eye on an employee whom it suspected of leaking information to MGA. The man was followed in his car, his children videotaped secretly and his home was watched.
Court documents also revealed a Mattel computer file that detailed the personal life of MGA founder Isaac Larian. It included his mother’s home address, the ages of his children and described his personality and passion for writing poetry.
The sudden emergence of Bratz was seen in apocalyptic terms by Mattel management as Barbie sales withered. A 2004 internal Mattel presentation on the Barbie brand claimed: ”The house is on fire!” — guardian.co.uk