Is 3D Printing Lego Blocks Illegal? (Please Don't Sue!)

in LEGOlast year (edited)

Might as well start off with a disclaimer:

"LEGO® is a trademark of the LEGO Group of companies which does not sponsor, authorize or endorse this site."
Source: https://www.lego.com/en-us/legal/notices-and-policies/fair-play/

3D-print-blocks.jpg
Image Source: Personal Photo

The other day @print3dpro brought up the possibility of legal risks that might result from 3D printing objects found on-line. I can't fault @print3dpro for feeling averse when intellectual property trolls exist but I think worrying about legal risk shouldn't have a chilling effect on the 3D printing community.

I should point out that I am not a lawyer due to some good life choices I've made. I believe that I have a soul and I don't assume "war on poverty" means I have an obligation to weaponize my education and talent against the poor. "Ignorantia juris non excusat" is a legal principle meaning "ignorance of the law excuses not". As a creative person I've researched what intellectual property law says so I can know what's allowed and where the boundaries are.

I have more to write about that but this post is about 3D printing and Lego. Lego-looking bricks seem like a good example for discussing intellectual property law being applied to 3D printing. They are simple, relatively quick to print, can be made with virtually identical material and dimensions and no additional material or assembly is required to print a Lego-like block.

The YouTube video I linked below is from October 2019. Around that time the rights holders for LEGO were issuing DMCA takedown notices for "fan art" 3D models compatible with Lego blocks.

To make this post a little more timely I'll note that less than a month ago 3dnatives.com had an article about newly developed 3D printed plastic beams for construction that were compared to assembling Lego blocks.

Comparing and compatibility with Lego blocks can be the point. Due to the precision of Lego blocks 3D printing a compatible connector demonstrates a 3D printer's accuracy.

From what I can determine (feel free to counter in the comment section below) all sources agree that the patent for Lego blocks had lapsed into the public domain several decades ago. This would seem to indicate that there's no infringement of any patent by 3D modeling a Lego block facsimile using CAD software and 3D printing it.

Except for cases such as character figures it also seems unlikely to me that one could infringe on a copyright protecting Lego blocks simply by 3D printing a similar plastic brick. There are several legal generic versions of "interlocking blocks" that happen to fit together with Lego blocks.

3D-print-blocks-up.jpg
Image Source: Personal Photo

I believe "happen to fit together with Lego blocks" is a statement of fact that won't get me into trouble. I know I can't claim I 3D printed a building block "Lego compatible" because LEGO is a trademark and they have a rule against that. Arduino is a different trademark that has different rules. I can say a board I designed "is compatible with Arduino". If that Arduino board happened to also neatly snap onto a store bought Lego brick it would be "compatible with the leading design of interlocking blocks". Can't use the L-word there. Also having something whose trademark allows compatibility to be claimed in close proximity to a trademark more litigious might cause irreparable damage to the space-time continuum and lead to vacuum decay.

3D-print-blocks-done.jpg
Image Source: Personal Photo

In the United States there is "nominative use" which is like copyright "fair use" defense against claims of trademark infringement. I might be using that since LEGO's rules for how the trademark is supposed to be used states:

If the LEGO trademark is used at all, it should always be used as an adjective, not as a noun.

ain't me fault no english good. me public skool educated. Please no sue me.

I understand that LEGO doesn't want to become a genericized trademark and they feel that they need to be more strict than how an open source platform would protect their trademark.

I should point out that the "Lego" in "Lego.gcode" on my 3D printer's display is an acronym. It stands for "Legal example something something". The model files are from Thingiverse. I assume the user SmokyFrosty put "Lego" in the .stl file names because of reasons.

3D-print-block-display.jpg
Image Source: Personal Photo

I can 3D print a building block with ABS filament similar to the plastic Lego blocks are made from. It can be the exact dimensions as a Lego block. It can snap into a Lego block. That's all legal it seems. I just can't say it's a "Lego block" that I 3D printed.

Just like Stewie and Brian after Halloween we're left looking at plastic blocks but have to use alternative names to label them. It has to be that way since @print3dpro is living the educational television version of The Truman Show and we're all just actors and production crew. Someone should have spent more time world-building the intellectual property laws but I guess suspension of disbelief makes the version we portray seem plausible.

My Thingiverse account: https://www.thingiverse.com/holovision/designs
My Thangs account: https://thangs.com/Holovision
3D printing community on Hive: https://peakd.com/c/hive-103035/created

Sort:  

Ok. Calling a plastic brick, 'a lego' is ridiculous, calling multiple plastic bricks, 'legos' is just an affront to the rules of English language. It's just Lego if it's made by Lego or lego if it isn't and as far as I'm concerned, it's an uncountable noun. I can't think of a need to use the word as an adjective!

Lego is a proper noun and that's all I care about, but it's a proper noun by virtue of language and not because someone is commanding it to be. It's now in common use as a simple noun which is also fine by me in the same way I hoover the carpet with a Dyson and eat Cornish pasties that don't come from Cornwall.

I have loads of Chinese lego and for the real hobbyists, I see nothing wrong with knocking up a few specialist pieces. Lego should think about all the original Lego they've bought and not be so arsey. As usual, common sense needs to prevail but when solicitors are involved, invariably doesn't .

PS As I wrote this on my phone, everytime I typed lego, the autocorrect changed it to Lego lol...big business is pathetic sometimes!

just got me thinking of laws on films. u can dl the content, not that big of an issue, but u cant show it in a cinema, etc, as that is breaking the law.

i feel like my reply should be longer than that, but im not well, and need a lay down :(

Your response is fine. Technically someone can get a license to show a movie publicly so it wouldn't be illegal. Sometimes organizations do that for fundraising. Sometimes they don't get a license and get in trouble.

It's weird how sometimes shows and movies will refer to "copyright" when it's clearly a trademark issue. They would know better than that since intellectual property is what the entertainment industry deals with regularly. I guess they "dumb it down" for the audience.

Lol. For some reason the Simpsons gif reminds me of the episode where Bill Gates buys him out.

Great write up concerning the intellectual property laws topic @holovision,

This is a lot to wrap the mind around.
I think it's pretty ridiculous how Lego went to these extremes against people posting fan prints, and it's understandable how the 3D printing community was so upset about it.
It's certainly a bold example of how corporate interest + corrupted politicians can lead to rather unethical and almost childish like infringements against a struggling societies attempt to find some enjoyment in their hobbies and share with friends.

I do like how the CJEU ruled in against their attempt to trademark the interlocking designs because of the issues it would cause with manufacturing of interlocking parts.
I don't care if I call it a lego or just a building block, but I think it's ridiculous that we should have to worry about how we use the reference to lego's in context. I'm not even sure I fully comprehend that part!

In terms of designs we can freely download and print that are free with attribution (kind of like pixabay images?)
I feel like, if I'm going to post someone else's design on my blog while earning crypto, then there should be some substance and reason why I'm posting it, and not just like "Hey I found this really cool thing and wanted to share it.", then end up making some crypto for the post and perhaps the guy who created it made nothing?
There's arguments to this too, which I can't really argue with.. like "You put the content out there in open space to be taken and used for others creative imaginative juices, and you cannot expect others in this world will not add some creative expression to your creations that you freely share." (And just freely use however they like.)
I've talked with folks who feel this way, and I also feel this way in many respects.
It's get's a bit complicated when profit is involved though.

Going back to pixabay as a reference. I bet if someone posted a pixabay image on Hive like "hey guys check out this cool pixabay image." and nothing else, they might get downvoted, or just get no votes at all.
But if it's a substance filled writing post with an image, the opposite might happen and then the user can say , "Well I'm not getting paid for the pixabay photo, I'm clearly getting paid for these thousand words I just wrote."

I think the post I made earlier with that gentlemen's design would probably be fine by him, I hope..
A lot of work went into the post, and the print will be visible in all of my posts, so the post itself is an attribution how I see it.

It has to be that way since @print3dpro is living the educational television version of The Truman Show and we're all just actors and production crew.

You just had to bring one of my favorite movies into this! 😅So true though, have good one.

Think you can make these?

It seems simple enough. I just replied to the blog post expressing my interest. Thanks for letting me know about this.

Oy, trademark laws and such are a pain in the ass. Obviously, LEGO wants to keep as much business as they can for themselves (they're a for-profit company, after all, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that), but the idea of trademarking or copyrighting a shape seems a little over the top.

I was engaged in a build over the weekend when I realised I needed a lego-compatible-brick-shape that doesn't exist. I am going to 3d print it and be happy with it.

If I can get the !$#^&@% 3d printer to work.