This is an excerpt from the upcoming issue (5.0, License) of PLAT Journal published by the Rice School of Architecture.
In 1989, the original patent for the LEGO brick, designed by Godtfred Kirk Christiansen expired. Following the expiration, several toy manufacturers began distributing similar, if not directly compatible, plastic bricks. The construction toy industry, as well as countless LEGO bins throughout the western world, quickly became saturated with cheaper imitations. To anyone familiar with the original brand, this dilution signaled nothing less than blasphemy.
The reaction was so visceral because between 1970 and 1990 LEGO was not only seen as a refreshing take on modular toys, having distinguished itself from predecessors like Erector Sets and Lincoln Logs, but was also quickly becoming a household name. Straddling the line between technological intrigue and universal appeal, the toy crossed age-boundaries and symbolized a democratic playground for both kids and adults. These were the company’s golden years in which it expanded to reach a diverse audience. It thrived and its product line grew to include mechanical parts, themed sets, electronics, and the canonical Mini-Figure. In short, “LEGOland” was not simply a theme park in Billund, Denmark, it was a philosophy that sought to represent the world as modular, infinite, and widely accessible. The mission could also be seen as wholesome when coupled with its friendly, family-run business image. Unfortunately, this would not last. Exponential growth and expansion into other markets eventually spread the company too thin, resulting in a marginalization of its core product line leaving it vulnerable to competing toy makers. As its primary intellectual property—the brick—expired, corporate predators seized the opportunity and pounced, creating the first ever unauthorized compatible bricks.
LEGO’s long history of copyright battles and will to maintain its intellectual property stands in opposition to a larger cultural shift in the creative industries. We are witnessing the spread of open-source platforms and sharing economies, wherein the concept of ownership of property—whether intellectual or not—is an increasingly fluid idea based on need and access. For creative disciplines, the products of which are traditionally inseparable from their author(s), lineages, and innovations, this schism will inevitably disrupt current design processes. Much like the LEGO Group, architects and designers do not like to remain anonymous, or distribute their knowledge freely. However, these changing attitudes have opened up the floor for a range of reflections on licensing, copyrighting, fair-use, plagiarism, and appropriation in design. As an example from the periphery of the architecture discipline, the LEGO Group’s recent history is curiously pertinent to the discussion of licensing and copyrighting. Though much has been noted about the group’s corporate history, discussions regarding the relationship between the brick and the design fields (namely architecture and urban design) are usually anecdotal and marginal. Upon closer inspection we will find that the associations between LEGO and these fields are not accidental, but rather grew out of a complex series of deliberate moves into “uncharted” markets and unlikely friendships. It is a case study in which a company, faced with the loss of its most prized intellectual property, restructured its mission, embraced the appropriation of its products, and formed partnerships with media corporations, architects, and architectural copyright holders to transform its image from a simple toy manufacturer to a global symbol of creativity in contemporary culture…
Buy the issue here.