Battle of the Blocks

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Courtesy of Lego

 Two of my favourite topics: intellectual property and Lego. The Danish toy-maker has been trying to protect its iconic toy bricks since they were developed in the 1930s and ’40s. Trade-mark law protects the brand (LEGO), and trade-marks can live on and on, as long as the owner (a) uses the mark, and (b) continues to renew the trade-mark registration. The LEGO trade-mark was registered in Canada in 1957 and that registration is still valid. Last week, Lego’s arch-rival, the Canadian-based toy-maker of Mega Bloks filed and then abruptly withdrew a lawsuit in the US, after threats that Mega Bloks products would be barred from entry into the United States, based on infringement of Lego’s US trade-marks. This reflects the sparring between these two competitors for market share in the building-toy industry.

In Canada, the decision in Kirkbi AG v. Ritvik Holdings Inc., 2005 SCC 65 (CanLII), settled a long-standing feud between Lego and Mega Bloks. In that case, the court decided that the Lego building blocks themselves are not protectable as trade-marks in Canada, on the grounds that the shape of the blocks is purely functional in nature. This does not apply to the LEGO word, or the various other trade-marks that Lego owns. Lego has suffered similar set-backs in other countries - for example, a 2010 decision in the EU came to the same conclusion that functional elements of a trade-mark are not protectable. So what’s a toy-maker to do?

  • Patents - utility patents in Canada will protect the function of the invention, in this case, the improved mechanism of how the plastic bricks snap together. However, patents expire after 20 years. Lego’s patents have all expired.
  • Industrial Design -  this category of protection (in the US, known as “design patents”) will protect the visual features of a product (shape, configuration, pattern or ornament). Functional elements cannot be protected. Industrial design protection expires after 10 years. Lego has registered dozens of industrial designs to protect a variety of building bricks and parts.
  • Copyright - some products are protectable under copyright law, though toy bricks don’t lend themselves well to this category, which is designed to protect written works, music, images, photos, paintings, that sort of thing. Copyright lasts for 50 years after the death of the author.
  • Trade-marks - the LEGO brand is arguably the toy-maker’s strongest asset, and trade-marks, once registered, are renewable indefinitely. Trade-marks protect things such as the word LEGO, the associated logo, and various product lines and slogans, such as DUPLO and BIONICLE.
  • Distinguishing Guise - A distinguishing guise is a type of trade-mark that protects a very specific type of “brand”. It applies to the shape of the products or the packaging, such as the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle. Since this is a species of trade-mark, the protection is renewable indefinitely once it’s registered. However, utilitarian features cannot be protected.

Published In: Civil Procedure Updates, Communications & Media Updates, Intellectual Property Updates, International Trade Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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