(8″ x 10″ photograph from the series Food Chain Barbie)
The Issue: Copyrights and Artistic Expression
By definition, a copyright is a specific restriction on who can say what. On the other hand, advances in science and art generally rely on works that came before them. Recognizing these issues, federal law allows several exceptions to copyright protection. The “fair use” exception excludes from copyright protection works that criticize and comment on another work. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that works of parody and satire, like works that comment and criticize, often sufficiently transform a work to qualify for the fair use exception.
In 1997, photographer Tom Forsythe developed a series of 78 photographs entitled “Food Chain Barbie.” The photos generally depicted one or more of the popular dolls juxtaposed with vintage kitchen appliances. Forsythe explains that his work is a critique of our culture’s objectification of women and he chose to parody Barbie because he believes the doll represents “the most enduring of those products.” Mattel, Inc., the manufacturer and owner of the Barbie copyright, was not amused. It sued Forsythe alleging, among other claims, that his work violated its copyright.
Is this art protected?
Yes. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit disagreed. The Court found that Mattel had established Barbie as “ideal American woman” and a “symbol of American girlhood.” Forsythe’s work turned this image “on its head,” said the Court, finding the photographs a parody of everything the doll has come to signify. “Food Chain Barbie” qualified for the fair use exception.