SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Two former business partners embroiled in a dispute regarding ownership of “trailer trash” dolls lost motions for summary judgment, because factual issues remain to be determined concerning a partnership agreement.
The case was spawned when Paul Montwillo began dressing Barbie dolls with wigs, make-up and different clothing. His “Trailer Trash Barbie” dolls first hit stores in 1996, appearing in William Tull’s In-Jean-ious Active store in San Francisco.
Barbie creator, Mattel Inc. sued Montwillo and In-Jean-ious Active for trademark infringement, and Montwillo agreed to cease using Barbie as the model for his dolls.
Following the Mattel suit Montwillo and Tull entered into a partnership agreement to create and distribute dolls that did not violate Mattel’s trademarks. The partnership agreement specified that Tull would handle the partnership’s business matters while Montwillo would be given artistic duties.
A year later the men converted their partnership agreement into a company, Arsenic & Apple Pie LLC. Between 1998 and the demise of the partnership in 2004, Arsenic & Apple Pie produced at least three Trailer Trash Doll models, the “Blond Drag Queen” and “Redhead Drag Queen” models, as well as the company’s hallmark “Trailer Trash Doll” model.
The idea did not translate into success. The company only turned a profit once, in 2000.
According to Tull, he learned that Montwillo filed for bankruptcy in March 2002. Pursuant to the terms of the partnership agreement, this filing put Montwillo’s ownership interest in the partnership up for sale and Tull offered to buy it for $1. Montwillo rejected the offer, claiming he and Tull had talked about the value of Montwillo’s ownership and determined the value was $16,000.
After the company was dissolved in 2004 and its assets split to pay outstanding debt, Montwillo filed copyright registrations for two undeveloped doll concepts, the “Talking Pregnant Trailer Trash Doll” and the “Male Mullet Trailer Trash Doll.” Montwillo also sent Tull a letter stating he disagreed with the dissolution of Arsenic & Apple Pie and asserted ownership of five Trailer Trash doll designs.
Montwillo eventually sued Tull in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California alleging copyright violations. Tull counterclaimed for conversion. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, but Judge Susan Illston rejected both motions.
In particular, because the requisite level for creativity is “extremely low,” Tull’s argument that the Trailer Trash Dolls constitute unprotect-able stock images is improper because Montwillo did make artistic decisions regarding the dolls’ appearances.
Likewise, there is a factual issue regarding whether Montwillo gave the partnership an implied non-exclusive license to use the dolls.
Because “numerous issues of fact” remain, summary judgment for either party is inappropriate at this time, Judge Illston ruled.