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We have seen (or I have seen, given I am a member of a few popular BIONICLE fan sites) an uproar from custom molding companies -- that is, companies that create their own LEGO pieces.

My question is simply whether these kinds of things are legal, as I know LEGO is very tight with legal issues.

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This topic about LEGO-Alternatives might be interesting for you, too. There are a lot, so it seems to be legal (but i'm not a lawyer). –  oezi Oct 27 '11 at 10:44
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Technically: this is off topic (no legal questions on stack exchange) –  Erik Olson Oct 27 '11 at 17:47
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@Erik: To the best of my knowledge that is not a SE-wide policy. While I am not usually a fan of legal questions on SE, there are very clear and specific court rulings in multiple jurisdictions about this exact issue. (I do think it could've been asked better - perhaps "What is the status of the Lego brick patents?" I might try to do a better edit later.) –  user23 Oct 27 '11 at 21:20
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5 Answers

from the german wikipedia entry (translated with my poor english-skills):

  • The Federal Court of germany opened the market for LEGO-like bricks on december 2nd 2004
  • The European Court of Justice decided in september 2010 that LEGO-Bricks can be copied as they aren't protected by patents anymore

so at least in europe there doesn't seem to be a problem in producing custom bricks and exact copies of LEGO-bricks.

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LEGO is a multinational corporation. Patents, laws and regulations vary in different countries. Moreover in, many cases, even if there is an operation recognized as illegal, enforcement may be difficult to achieve.

As a result, a proliferation of compatible brands and clones (fake LEGO) do exist. There is also the edge cases of artists selling custom made minifigs parts, etc.

According to the latest jurisprudence

  • On November 17, 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Mega Bloks' right to continue selling the product in Canada. This effectively permit Lego compatible brick systems to be sold in Canada
  • On September 14, 2010, the European Court of Justice ruling had Lego lost their protection on their brick design.

More about this on the wikipedia Megabrand article

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As you say, LEGO is very tight with legal issues, so if custom molding was entirely illegal, it's likely we wouldn't see such companies, or maybe in unreachable countries only.

Now, LEGO may be tight with legal issues, but on the other hand they know how to be benevolent when it benefits them. (Consider the openness around the various Mindstorms systems, for example.)

The key here is that LEGO is very protective of its own brand and image, but as long as you don't infringe on that, you're most likely to be OK. In the case of custom molding, it means you can't make any part that LEGO makes or has made itself, and of course you can't pretend it's LEGO at all.

And then you have to hope that LEGO doesn't want to copy you, but even there they can play nice if they feel it's best for them. For an example, take the development of the Emerald Night train. When LEGO started thinking about that, they didn't produce big wheels; but one of the fans who participated in a workshop brought Big Ben Bricks train wheels with him, and by showing LEGO the great models they could build with them, them managed to have LEGO change its position and produce some larger wheels.

Whether LEGO had talks with Big Ben Bricks, or what could have been discussed in these talks, is unknown; but you can notice that Big Ben Bricks still exists eventhough LEGO knows about them. Moreover, LEGO doesn't produce all sizes that BBB does, and even then in limited sets and quantities only (always 4 regulars and 2 blinds together), so that it's likely LEGO tries not to impede too much on BBB.

I a way, I think LEGO is very conscious that these companies fill a gap that they themselves can't, or don't want. As such, as long as these companies play nice, LEGO knows better than to go after them.

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As the other answers rightly point out, maybe there's not much LEGO can do about it anyway. –  Joubarc Oct 27 '11 at 11:33
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(I am not a lawyer)

The key thing now is that the basic brick designs (studs on top and tubes underneath) are no longer covered by patents, which is how mega-blocks et. al managed to survive and create "LEGO Compatible" components - without that, LEGO would have taken them down completely.

What then remains is the copyright and trade marks of the LEGO logo, wording, etc, and indeed the "Basic Brick" in some countries. (Lego Fair Play). How far they go with enforcing that, I'm not sure, and you'd need to talk to the likes of Big Ben Bricks and see if they have any explicit agreements in place.

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From the Wikipedia Lego Group article:

The LEGO Group has attempted to trademark the "LEGO Indicia", the studded appearance of the LEGO brick, hoping to stop production of Mega Bloks. On 24 May 2002, the Federal Court of Canada dismissed the case, asserting the design is functional and therefore ineligible for trademark protection [4]. The LEGO Group's appeal was dismissed by the Federal Court of Appeal on 14 July 2003 [5]. In October 2005, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that "Trademark law should not be used to perpetuate monopoly rights enjoyed under now-expired patents." and held that Mega Bloks can continue to manufacture their bricks.

As other posters have mentioned, other companies have limited or dismissed Lego's rights to force out competitors. From my personal observation, Lego has increased its licensing efforts of popular movies (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, etc.) to improve its competitiveness against Lego clones.

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