Behind the Barbie buzz: Exploring the legal implications confronting the iconic brand

  • 31 Jul 2023
  • 4 Mins Read
  • 〜 by Waceera Kabando

‘Come on Barbie, let’s go Barbie…’

Barbie was launched in 1959 by a toy manufacturing company, Mattel Inc, as Ruth Handler’s brainchild. Since then, this Bild Lilli-inspired innovation has taken the world by storm and managed to hold its crown as an unshakable force.

Grand is the generation that has grown influenced by everything Barbie from the outfits, to the mannerisms and daringly so, even the lifestyle. This brand cuts across toys, toons, merchandise, songs and now the much-acclaimed real-life depiction of Barbie that premiered on July 21st, 2023, worldwide. Just like the first Black Panther movie, movie theatres were and still are filled with die-hard fans dressed up in their creative versions of Barbie outfits almost as though it were a ‘pink’ carpet-graced fashion runway.

Just like it takes a village to raise a child, this phenomenal masterpiece took a couple of parties to execute, therefore, this means that there was a need for the contractual agreements to cover intellectual property rights, compliance and marketing laws, data protection and regulatory compliance. However, before getting into the legal aspect of these collaborations, it would be essential to mention some of the players.


  •         Zara came up with a collection that features a wide range of clothing, accessories, pajamas, beauty products, and homeware;
  •         Gap started a limited edition of collection of tees, skirts, logo hoodies, denim, button-downs and accessories as well as pet apparel;
  •         Fossil’s collection is a collaboration inspired by the iconic doll’s style, reimagining the brand’s watches, leather items and jewelry;
  •         NYX created a limited-edition assortment that makes for the perfect party pack, featuring two credit card-sized mini shadow palettes with a collectible mini–Butter Gloss keychain attachment, a mini cheek palette including two blushes and a highlighter, two new shades of Jumbo Eye Pencil sticks in vibrant pink and electric blue, Jumbo Lashes featuring wisps of Barbie pink, two Smooth Whip Matte Lip Creams (a brand best seller), a Butter Gloss, and a very Y2K flip phone shaped mirror compact;
  •         Airbnb and Barbie partnered to create her Malibu Dreamhouse for the ultimate fan stay. Located in the heart of Malibu, the life-size Barbie Malibu Dreamhouse was available for booking;
  •         Xbox and Forza Horizon 5 partnered with Barbie to launch a bonanza including a new Xbox Series S console, Xbox Wireless controller, and a couple of Barbie cars;
  •         Burger King Brazil and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts partnered to bring Barbie-themed meals like cheeseburger topped with bacon bits and dressed with a bright pink sauce, a pink vanilla milkshake with strawberry Nesquik powder mixed in and doughnuts and a chiller with edible glitter, sprinkles, and fabulous Barbie design toppings;
  •         Bumble launched a new experience where users can get message suggestions from all the Barbies and Kens featured in the movie.



Intellectual Property – One of the most imperative components of a collaborative agreement is retaining the underlying intellectual property. The spectrum of intellectual property is about the ownership of the designs, copyright, the right to use subject images, etc. It is crucial to ensure that the underlying intellectual property rights of the collaborative artwork belong to the designer unless they themselves particularly negotiate to sell the rights to the brand for compensation.


Trademarks – The marketing strategy used for this movie is nothing short of a masterpiece. The use of colour pink proves how impactful visual imaging is. Mattel does not possess trademark registrations for any pink hues on their own although on more than one occasion since at least 2001, there have been applications to register the “Barbie Pink” word mark with the US Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) for use on goods/services like dolls, homewares, paper products, garments, hair accessories, eyewear, etc. but these have been unsuccessful.

 Trademark rights are enforced through the use of a mark and not registration hence why Mattel may maintain rights over the Pantone colour which is a blend of pink and magenta. This pink hue has gained a distinctiveness aligned to Barbie over the years hence why propping billboards of that colour as a marketing strategy for the movie was genius.

 Recently, Mattel has asked the US Trademark Office to reject British fashion house Burberry’s proposed “BRBY” trademark, arguing it is likely to bring confusion with the Barbie brand.

The toymaker said in a Monday filing that the “BRBY” mark for Burberry clothing, bags and other products would mislead consumers into thinking they were associated with Mattel’s Barbie dolls and related merchandise and would dilute its brand.


Artificial Intelligence – Johnny Cash, was a renown American country singer-songwriter who passed in 2003 but has recently released an AI-enabled cover of Barbie Girl through the YouTube channel owner Dustin Ballard. Music and copyright lawyers say this could create legal nightmares as these covers flood the internet and are already taking steps to safeguard artists.


Data privacy – Barbie has also been found to have violated data privacy laws in 2015 with the launch of Hello Barbie which was an interactive, internet-connected version of the iconic doll. With an unwavering smile and a press of her belt buckle, she would hold conversations with children using speech recognition software similar to Siri or Alexa. This direct Wi-Fi access gave hackers access to other devices connected to the same network. The toy could leave an entire household’s devices exposed and at risk of their information being stolen without them knowing.

Hackers had multiple ways to corrupt Hello Barbie. In addition to accessing a home Wi-Fi network, bad actors could also manipulate the doll into connecting to a rouge hotspot, which would also enable direct communication with a child on the other end hence illegally collect information.


Marketing laws – It was reported, as of 14 July, that TikTok videos using the hashtag #Barbie had been viewed more than nine billion times in the first half of 2023. While all this promotion is great exposure for Barbie, it ought to be considered whether such immersive brand promotion will create a likelihood of consumer confusion as to who the relevant product actually belongs to, or the risk of market saturation and the brand image becoming too generic and descriptive to legally protect in future. 


Trade secrets –  The manufacturing of Barbie, the doll, dream house and even the recipe for the pink burger sauce qualify as trade secrets as this information is commercially beneficial and needs to be protected by use of Non-Disclosure Agreements.