Judge to Lego: Your patent has expired, get over it

The Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that it’s lawful for a Montreal company to make blocks that work with Lego bricks.

Decades ago, Lego sought and received a Canadian patent for its blocks. The patent did what it was supposed to do: it protected Lego’s invention for a limited time, and then it expired, so that anyone could make compatible products. That’s the patent bargain: in exchange for asking the government to keep your competitors at bay, you agree to let the public copy your invention for free when the period of exclusivity is expired.

Lego is a great beneficiary of this: the machines, processes, materials, tools, and even the roads, power and sewer lines that feed the Lego business contain innumerable inventions on which the patents have expired. If Lego had to pay a royalty to every inventor whose work they built upon, a single Lego brick would cost a million dollars.

But Lego wanted to renege on the deal. They proposed that their trademark should protect their exclusive right to their blocks forever. They argued that anyone who buys a Lego-shaped brick is doing so because he believes he’s buying official Lego product and not Mega Bloks, even if it says Mega Bloks on the package.

In other words, Lego argues that its customers are so stupid that they need to be protected from their inability to distinguish official Lego from lower-cost competing products, and the government should therefore ensure that no one ever undercuts their pricing.

The Supreme Court didn’t buy it. They threw out Lego’s claim and opened the door to competitors. Now Lego joins the same pool of inventions that has served it so well — a pool from which anyone can freely draw to create new products and services as innovative as that first Lego brick was, all those decades ago.

By Cory Doctorow

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