It was tastefully attired Barbie vs. streetwise Bratz in federal court in Riverside on Tuesday as trial began in Mattel Inc.'s lawsuit against a rival doll maker.
The big questions in the copyright infringement case: Exactly when was the Bratz franchise conceived? And was it in Barbie's own house?
Mattel, the El Segundo-based owner of the Barbie empire, alleges in its suit against MGA Entertainment Inc. that the man who came up with the idea for the popular Bratz line was in Mattel's employ as a Barbie designer when he made drawings crucial to the other doll's concept.
The designer, Carter Bryant, defected in 2000 to MGA Entertainment, a Van Nuys company that introduced the saucy Bratz girls in 2001.
How could MGA Entertainment have "suddenly, overnight, become one of the innovative toy companies in the world?" Mattel's attorney, John Quinn, asked the jury in opening arguments Tuesday. "Simple -- they took the designs from a Mattel designer."
Mattel, the world's largest toy maker, owns Bryant's original Bratz drawings and therefore a stake in the Bratz line, Quinn said, because Bryant had a contractual agreement to turn over to the company his "inventions."
In fact, U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson ruled in April that the agreement Bryant signed while working for Mattel gave the company the right to claim any "ideas, concepts and copyrightable subject" that he came up with during the course of his employment.
The attorney for MGA Entertainment, Tom Nolan, told the jury that Bryant wasn't working for Mattel when he had the Bratz inspiration but had sketched out his idea in 1998 during a time that he wasn't employed by the company.
Bryant worked for Mattel from September 1995 to April 1998, returning in January 1999 and leaving again in October 2000, according to court documents.
"The Mattel agreement was not a lifetime sentence," Nolan said, adding that Bryant's mother and partner would testify that they saw the Bratz drawings in 1998 before Bryant rejoined the company.
Executives at Mattel are "trying to get an idea that they did not create and a doll they did not make," Nolan said.
As for Bryant, he's no longer a defendant in the case. Mattel said last week that it had reached a confidential settlement with him and dropped its breach-of-contract claims. Bryant is expected to testify during the trial.
Born in 1959, eternally smiling Barbie, girlfriend to sporty Ken and famous the world over, has fallen on hard times as the hip Bratz dolls have grabbed a sizable piece of the market.
Barbie sales slipped 12% in the United States in the first quarter compared with the same period last year, though they did rise a bit in other parts of the world.
Mattel, owner of the Fisher-Price toy line, which suffered several lead-related recalls in 2007, reported a loss of $46.6 million for the quarter.
MGA is privately owned and doesn't disclose its earnings. Analysts have speculated that it makes as much as $2 billion a year from the Bratz line.
The judge made it clear that MGA Chief Executive Isaac Larian, who was in the courtroom for opening arguments, would have to at least reveal figures for Bratz earnings.
"The bottom line is that information has to come out," Larson said to MGA's attorneys before the jury was seated.
Shares of Mattel climbed 24 cents Tuesday to $20.10.