A moral dilemma over Lego & trademarks

I've always strongly held the belief that existing copyright and trademark laws should be relaxed to allow culture, ideas and designs to spread more freely. I also think that generally 'open standards' are a good idea, making it easier to compete on content, not on format.

Given this, you'd think that logically I'd be in favour of the 'system' of Lego - the dimensions of the bricks and their connectors - passing into the public domain so that anyone could make compatible parts.

In reality though, I find myself hugely conflicted over this. Whilst I have no objection to the companies like BrickArms, who make minifig accessories that Lego would never produce (e.g. AK47s), the ongoing dispute with Mega Bloks leaves me more troubled.

Mega Bloks starting making Lego-compatible bricks since 1991, and have been in dispute with Lego ever since. The latest legal wrangling is over the US-import of MegaBloks's newest Halo-themed sets.

A key argument hinges on Lego’s trademark of the cylindrical stud element used during play to fit into tubes on the bottom of the bricks, connecting them together. Montreal-based Mega Brands is claiming that the studs are functional components, and therefore not eligible for trademark protection.

Lego's patent on the tube-and-stud brick connection expired in 1988. Since then they've been trying, and mostly failing, to claim that the design is covered under the longer-lasting trademark and copyright laws.

So Mega Bloks clearly have every right to make compatible bricks - and Lego's attempts to hold onto the monopoly over the simple (but ingenious) brick design are a little morally dubious.

However my heart still tells me that Lego is just not Lego unless it has the official 'LEGO' logo stamped on top of each of the studs. And far from improving the market, the products from Mega Bloks are generally of a much lower quality, with cheap-feeling plastic and poor set design.

I guess it all comes down to following aphorism (author unknown):

There's nothing wrong with a monopoly - so long as it's a good one.

This applies, in my view, to the NHS, railways, and Lego.