Barbie sees her popular younger rival in court

Jurors assembled in a California courtroom yesterday at the start of a trial that may look like a frivolous cat-fight in America's toy chest, pitting the long-legged Barbie doll against her pouty-lipped upstart rivals, the Bratz. But it is not just a contest about which girl is sexier. It's about multi-millions in market share.

In combat are not the dolls but their makers. In one corner is Mattel, whose Barbie has reigned supreme as the doll of choice for little girls in America and around the world for 50 years. In the other is MGA Entertainment, whose line of Bratz dolls is threatening to knock Barbie off her throne.

MGA might be congratulated for that but for one thing. Lawyers for Mattel yesterday began making their case that the Bratz girls were actually conceived in Mattel's design studios. More than that, Mattel is actually seeking to seize Bratz and the profits the line generates from MGA.

It is a trial that may be more diverting than an episode of Desperate Housewives. Jurors will hear how, in the pursuit of truth, Mattel sought forensic analysis of the earliest sketches of the Bratz while at one point putting a private detective on to one of its own executives suspected of being in cahoots with MGA.

At the heart of the case is Carter Bryant, a 39-year-old designer who worked for Mattel in the mid-Nineties before taking time off and moving back to his parents in Missouri. Thereafter, he rejoined Mattel before quitting a second time and taking a job with MGA.

At some juncture in that timeline, Mr Bryant came up with Bratz. His idea was a smart one: as Barbie was becoming middle-aged, girls today would surely respond to a doll with a little more edge. He came up with Bratz with their oversized lips, wild hair-dos and bare bellies.

According to pre-trial depositions, Mr Bryant was in hiatus in Missouri when he had his "eureka" moment driving by a local high school when class was coming out. The girls, he said, "were wearing kind of, you know, oversized clothes, big, baggy jeans... just got me to kind of thinking, you know, wouldn't it be cool if there were some characters that kind of accurately represented today's teenager?"

His second stint with Mattel was fairly short after he found himself wooed away by MGA in 2000 and its founder, Isaac Larian. In 2003 the Bratz line was launched and caught on at once. Nobody at Mattel denies the threat that represented. In 2004, an internal memo was circulated to personnel working on Barbie under the headline "The House is on Fire!"

Shelf space for Barbie in retailers such as Wal-Mart was shrinking fast, as Bratz elbowed her aside. Sales of Barbies in the latest quarter in the US declined by 12 per cent, in spite of efforts to juice her up with sassier outfits and accessories.

Mattel was spurred into action in 2002, when its CEO received an anonymous email saying that all was not quite as it seemed with the emergence of the Bratz. Shortly afterwards, the private detective was hired to tail another executive, Ronald Brawer, who was suspected of leaking company secrets to MGA. Mr Brawer, who went to work for MGA, was sued by Mattel but the suit was dismissed.

In court, Mattel is attempting, in essence, to challenge the DNA of Bratz. Its lawyers will contend that most of the original work done by Mr Bryant on the new doll was completed during his second spell at the company and will use the forensic analysis of the sketch paper to back it up.

While the company at first went after Mr Bryant with its first lawsuit, it later expanded its action to include MGA and Mr Larian as defendants. Mr Bryant and Mattel reached an out-of-court settlement early last week but Mattel says its contents will serve to back up the remainder of its case in court. MGA, meanwhile, has launched a counter-suit against Mattel.