“You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side” by Orly Lobel, 2017, W.W.Norton, $27.95, 304 pages.
As a kid, what was your favorite toy?
You can probably remember it instantly: the thing you couldn’t bear to leave at home, the doll you spent hours with, the toy truck that road-tripped your imagination. Just thinking of it gives you a warm feeling and a wistful smile, but in “You Don’t Own Me” by Orly Lobel, you’ll read about two toy companies that weren’t playing around.
Years after it happened, Carter Bryant couldn’t tell you what spurred him to think the way he did that sunny afternoon.
Maybe it was dissatisfaction with his on-again, off-again job at Mattel. Maybe it was a recent, nasty break-up with his on-again, off-again boyfriend. Or maybe it was a quirk in his impressively creative mind that made him notice three teenagers as they left their small-town-Missouri school, and that made Bryant think of his huge idea.
All his life, he’d been an artist and he’d dreamed of designing clothes. After graduating from fashion school, he landed a job at Mattel to work with Barbie but Mattel had no tolerance for spontaneous creativity, says Lobel, and that was something Bryant couldn’t abide. And so, as he moved from Los Angeles to his parents’ home in Missouri then back to Mattel a few times, Bryant obsessed about three hip teenage dolls, drawing and re-drawing, putting them away and revisiting them, creating their fictitious lives, rounding them out and making them real.
In August 2000, a friend and former Mattel co-worker introduced Bryant to two people who would change his life; both were executives at Mattel rival MGA. And both were excited to see what Bryant had been calling his “Bratz.”
For many years, Isaac Larian, a Jewish-Iranian immigrant and the owner-founder of toy company MGA, had been looking for a blockbuster toy. He wanted to own it, not just distribute it, and he was “no stranger to litigation.” That was a good thing because, after many attempts to get Barbie back on her molded feet to fight against Larian and MGA’s newly-purchased Bratz fashion-doll line, Mattel got mad.
And in 2004, it filed the first lawsuit.
Do you own the ideas you concoct on your own time? Or can your employer take them for free? Those are just two of the intriguing questions inside “You Don’t Own Me.”
Of course, in the case of Mattel versus MGA, many arguments were made, and author Orly Lobel recounts them here. While there’s some lean in the narrative, and well-considered author opinion, Lobel also presents a nice, full background of both companies, as well as biographies, to allow for better understanding before she launches her subtle argument-starters. Mixed with the story, Lobel looks at gender and the nature of play, which lends a nostalgic tone to a book that’s highly readable, even if you’re not in business.
This book — and the story — ends on an uneasy note. It will absolutely give inventors pause and businesspeople a reason for eagle-eyed vigilance. For sure, “You Don’t Own Me” shows that the ownership of ideas is nothing to toy with.
Terri Schlichenmeyer reviews books about businesses and business practice.