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Who Owns History When It is Made of 3D Printed Lego?

By March 28, 2014. 3D Printing, 3DP Applications, Featured

I apologise outright for going off on a tangent before I even start, but, whenever I run into a 3D printed Lego item, my mind just cannot help wandering into the very foggy realm of 3D model copyrights. I concede I do not yet know a great deal about the possible application of copyrighting laws to 3D printing. However, while in the area of industrial prototyping the possible boundaries are more defined – and the priority is to protect a file from possible espionage – in the consumer world the lines lose clarity.

A LEGO representative once told me that they are very happy when someone 3D prints something, in a non commercial environment, that somehow celebrates their bricks. During the same conversation, the person stated that they would also pursue — with any means necessary — anyone copying LEGO products to sell them for financial gain.

As much as I – as someone who really likes the study of History (though I have really come to appreciate it more since leaving school) – really do like Woody’s Minifg Customs in 3D very much and personally think it is an amazing project that should be supported, I cannot help but wonder what Lego will have to say about it. Hopefully nothing, as Woody’s items, which are for sale on Shapeways, are accessories that, if anything, should promote the sale of more LEGO figures.

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Then again LEGO might think that, instead of buying new products from them, people can just keep playing over and over with their old LEGO figures by purchasing Woody64’s awesome hats and accessories to collect or to re-enact infinite battles. As new models come out on Woody64’s section, history will just keep repeating itself. Over and over. For sure LEGO is hoping that this history will not be anything like the history of digital distribution for the entertainment industry.

rocketeerTo try to figure it out let us look at Woddy64’s offer which consists of a prolific collection of historical hats and helmets for Lego Minifigs, for sale via a Shapeways shop and 3D printed by the service provider on demand. The sections already cover more than 20 pages and keep growing. They include events from the past as well as from science fiction and fantasy. In fact they are so specific it is really tempting: items from the Middle Ages, from the Napoleonic Wars, from Ancient Times or from the American Revolution. Russians, Germans, British hats and weapons, sometimes even made into jewellery. All one needs to do to enter this particular time machine is select materials and purchase.

Prices range form micro transactions of $2-3 dollars for single items to 5-pack offers that rise up to $10. They are certainly not cheaper than official LEGO and may even be less qualitative. But they are a lot more unique. And you simply cannot buy them anywhere else. There are other downsides: not all models are tested for 3D printing and there are shipping costs involved.

LEGO has also commented that 3D printing is not yet ready to support the huge quantities of bricks they manufacture each year. However I think that the toy giant should also begin to carefully consider the possibility of offering bespoke products to some of its customers (especially the more creative and passionate ones) or they will just turn to other offers, such as Woody64’s, and Shapeways’ in general. The only other option for the Danish company, once the phenomenon of personal manufacturing of LEGO (and any other toy) spreads, will be to fight it in court. But that is a fuzzy world: who really owns history if it is made of LEGO?

  • Axebaneblade

    The standard Lego brick design was patented on 28 January 1958. That patent expired decades ago. Copyrights last much longer, but they don’t protect designs or inventions, they protect creative works.

    So as long as Woody64 is not recreating any copyrighted art, and is just using the size and shape of the interlocking part of the Lego brick, he should have nothing at all to worry about from a legal standpoint. Think about how ridiculous it would be to try and sue someone for using “a little round peg that fits into a round slot”.

    Now, there is also Trademark law, but Woody64 would only be in violation of that if he were to steal the Lego logo and try to sell his products as official Lego products. The courts in the US have established that you are allowed to create products that are compatible with someone else’s product, even if you don’t hold the patent for that product. For instance. You can create a set of Lego style bricks that are designed to work with official Lego bricks, and you can even mention Lego when explaining that: “Compatible with Lego bricks” or “Designed for use with Lego bricks” as long as you explain that you are not affiliated with the Lego company in any way.

    To give you a real world example: Even as a child, I owned “off-brand” Lego style bricks. The brandname was “Tyco” and the bricks were the EXACT same size, shape, and design as Lego bricks, but obviously without the Lego logo. That was two decades ago, and even back then the Lego patent on the original Lego brick had long since expired.

  • As many other custom part producers we all sell parts compatible with Lego items. As requested by Lego we add the sentence “LEGO® is a trademark of the LEGO Group of companies which does not sponsor, authorize or endorse this site.” to ensure that we respect the trademark and don’t want to copy anything which is in the ownership of the company (see http://aboutus.lego.com/en-us/legal-notice/fair-play).
    Beside the interest to create new items a major intend is also to ensure that my grandchilds can play with LEGO® pieces. With the same glance in eyes as I had standing in the toy store of my aunt some decades ago …

  • My side offers custom pieces compatible with Lego Minifigs. That’s already done by some other providers via classical injection molding. I design very specialized pieces and offer these via 3d printing. One target is to enrich the Lego world with topics and items they don’t address themselves by adding custom pieces. So copies are absolutely not in scope.
    Therefor I also respect the Lego fair play policy adding a disclaimer to the page: “LEGO®is a trademark of the LEGO Group of companies which does not sponsor, authorize or endorse this site”.