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The origin of the self-locking building bricks

Hilary Page was born in 1904 in Sanderstead, England. Along with several partners, Page decided to go into the toy business in 1932. In 1936, he began manufacturing Kiddicraft ‘Sensible’ toys using new injection moulding technology. Among them was an Interlocking Building Cube, for which he received a British patent in 1940.

After WW2, Page designed and produced the Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks. These were smaller, refined versions of the Interlocking Building Cube. Bricks could be stacked on each other and were held in place by studs on the top. The bricks also featured slits on their side that allowed panel-like doors, windows or cards to be inserted. He patented the basic design, a 2 X 4 studded brick, in 1947. This was later followed by patents for the side slits (1949) and the baseplate (1952), designs featured in exhibits at the Brighton Toy and Model Museum.

Example of a Kiddicraft set:

enter image description here


How Lego "stole" Kiddicraft's ideas and purged Page's name

Ole Kirk Christiansen and his son Godtfred became aware of the Kiddicraft brick after examining a sample, and possibly drawings, given to them by the British supplier of the first injection moulding machine they had purchased. Realising their potential, Ole modified the Kiddicraft brick and in 1949 marketed his own version, The Automatic Binding Brick.

Example of an Automatic Binding Brick set:

enter image description here

Automatic Binding Brick became Lego brick in 1953. So, basically, this means that Lego actually started off as a direct knock-off of Kiddicraft.

Separated from his wife, and with the stress of his business ventures, Page committed suicide in 1957. British Lego Ltd. was set up in late 1959 and the first sets were sold the following year. Lego eventually acquired the rights to Kiddicraft in 1981. In an out-of-court settlement, Lego paid £45,000 to the new owners of Page's company Hestair-Kiddicraft. It subsequently purged all references to Page and Kiddicraft from its published history.


The rise of the Chinese clone brands

Lego filed its first patent in 1958. Several other patents would follow. However, these patents had all expired in 1989. And ever since then, a number of companies have produced interlocking bricks nearly identical to (and compatible with) Lego bricks.

Especially in China, a wide range of brands have popped up, including (but not exclusive to) Banbao, Lele, Lepin, Kopf, XingBao, Englighten, Kazi, Gudi & Ausini. Some brands, like Lepin, blatantly copy LEGO sets in every detail, clearly enfringing European & American copyright law.

Most brands, however, produce their their own sets, with their own unique designs. This includes anything from medieval or city themed sets to complete modular buildings. Many of these brands also include themes Lego avoids, like WW2 or Vietnam era military themes.

Example of an Ausini set:

enter image description here

Example of a Kazi set:

enter image description here


My question

In the AFOL community, I've noticed a great amount of hostility (even outright hate) against Chinese clone brands. Both companies producing such clone brands and the people buying them are often labeled anything from mildly immoral to pure evil, because they supposedly "steal" from Lego or the companies it licenses from.

However, considering Lego itself started out by blatantly copying the design of blocks that were parented by Kiddicraft & tried to hide these facts from its customers in decent decades, how does that make Lego any better? Is not Lego just as guilty of violating another company's IP? If "stealing" another company's IP is evil, does that not make Lego just as evil?

Why does Lego get a pass for copying another brand and thereby possibly even contributing to the suicide of the original creator? Why does Lego get a pass for trying to hide the history of self-locking building bricks prior to Lego?

Is it not utterly hypocritical to be so hostile against Chinese clone brands for cloning Lego designs while Lego would not have existed if it not were for doing the exact same thing with another brand?

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    I think there's a core of a good question here. Would you object to an edit to cut down on fluff and rhetorical questions? – Alexander O'Mara Dec 27 '18 at 1:50
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    @AlexanderO'Mara : I added all of the "fluff" and "rhetorical questions" to provide a context wherein to frame my question. I believe this context is important, considering the controversial nature of both Chinese clone brands and Lego's origin. While I don't mind your improving my question per se, I'd rather not see any important context get lost. – John Slegers Dec 27 '18 at 4:02
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Page was owner of the patent only for Great Britain, allowing LEGO to use the design worldwide. Buying a "rival" company (Kiddicraft) later on is nothing unusual in business history. Therefore, blaming Page's death on LEGO does not make much sense.

Regarding chinese brands, one has to make a difference between using a compatible plastic brick system (which everyone is allowed to do) and copying complete sets, including minifigs and the logo (which is illegal). Some clone brands create sets that LEGO fans would like to see not only as MOCs but as official LEGO sets. There is nothing wrong with compatible systems even if the quality often is lower than LEGO standards.

So, LEGO and Lepin cannot be compared in this way. Lepin is illegal, selling Lepin products is illegal.

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    If selling Lepin products is illegal in China, why do the Chinese government & AliExpress allow the sale of this brand? And if it is not illegal in China, how is the sale of Lepin products being sold in China any different from Lego selling a clone of patented Kiddicraft blocks in Denmark? – John Slegers Dec 26 '18 at 21:03
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    As Aziraphale said; Kiddiecraft was patented only in Great Britain, and they later sold their patent to LEGO. The patent of the original brick design no longer belongs to Kiddiecraft. It is perfectly legal for companies to buy and sell their products, patents, or even their entire business. – TheBrickBlogger Dec 26 '18 at 21:32
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    LEGO does not sell Kiddiecraft blocks. I'm not sure where you got that idea. LEGO has their own unique brick design that is significantly different from the original Kiddiecraft design. In addition, Kiddiecraft no longer owns even their original the patent. They sold it to LEGO. – TheBrickBlogger Dec 26 '18 at 21:37
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    Hm... no need to get upset, and I did read your post. As it was pointed out by several people here, Kiddiecraft was only trademarked in the UK. There were a number of other companies who made similar binding bricks in several countries. Kiddiecraft and LEGO were not the only ones. If a product is not trademarked in a region, the original company will either have to go through the effort of trademarking it, or risk their product getting copied. It's how business works. – TheBrickBlogger Dec 26 '18 at 21:51
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    As I mentioned, trademark laws and procedures are very complex and it's hard to wrap our everyday brains around it. Even lawyers who are not versed in trademark laws wouldn't try to interpret a complex case like this. But in short, my understanding is that those 18 sets are just the beginning. The case is ongoing. – TheBrickBlogger Dec 26 '18 at 22:31
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Restating my comments from a previous discussion so that they are here (and before this question gets closed as being "primarily opinion based"):

In terms of acceptable practices, it's possibly more to do with timing and globalisation - Looking into some of the LEGO/Kiddicraft aspects, the Kiddicraft patents didn't cover Denmark or Europe (The EU and EEA didn't exist then, so patents wouldn't have been cross-border), and so there was nothing stopping LEGO making and selling in Denmark - they weren't able to sell in the UK though.

The issue now is the so-called "grey" imports of patent/trademark infringing products into these markets. Obviously Chinese brands can do whatever's acceptable within China, but as has been pointed out in other comments by TheBrickBlogger some of these practices are clearly not something that are legal in other markets - it's also been argued that Chinese laws can be somewhat protectionist, finding in favour of local producers even when it's clear that externally this wouldn't hold internationally.

Trademark law requires that the rights holder defends their IP otherwise they can lose their right to it (trademark abandonment) - so TLG will have to be seen to pursue infringers to maintain the strength of their IP.

Many of the clone brands also have much lower quality control, leading to issues with colours (sometimes desirable to add nice variation in large models, sometimes not - and something we're seeing more of with TLG as well) but more importantly in brick clutch and fit.

As TheBrickBlogger points out in their comment (linked previously), some of the companies providing their own sets are owned by parent companies that also own the companies making complete clones (for example Xingbao (星堡) is owned by Meizi Model (美致模型), which is the same company that owns LEPIN).

And even when the sets themselves are (sometimes only slightly) different and do contain some very nice unique elements of their own, there are still a large number of LEGO duplicates pieces that could easily be different, but are identical, for example (all taken from Enlighten).

LEGO have certainly won infringement cases around the Minifigure, I'd assume there are similar marks for the minidoll and other pieces. However, provided those parts and sets are only marketed in regions where those parts are not protected, there's not much that can be done or said. However the issue really is the same one at the heart of the question: LEGO improved upon the original designs for the bricks, and has since spent time and effort (and by extension money) developing these and additional elements, while Enlighten are just taking that work and copying it - when they could have developed their own versions. For example if you're developing an "ancient knights" theme for a Chinese market, why use European styles as the basis for that when you have your own unique culture other than "it's cheaper to use this existing idea rather than develop our own (oh, and then we might also make a few sales into that market even if we don't actively target it)".

For example take the differences between the Mega Bloks figures and LEGO's: the accessories are interchangeable, but the figures are distinct from each other. The same could be done by Enlighten (as other Chinese brands have done to a greater or lesser degree of success), but Enlighten and others have chosen to exactly copy LEGO's designs.

  • Morning Star:
    Morning Star from Ambush Tumbrel
  • Waving Pendant:
    Blue wavy pendant from Ambush Tumbrel
  • Classic Castle Helm, Monkey and Bat:
    Helm, Monkey and Bat from Enlighten Sentry Post
  • Cherry Minidolls:
    Minidolls

I'll admit that I'd like to see more variety, and have been known to buy the odd Mega Bloks Halo and Character Building Doctor Who sets as they were available legitimately here in the UK, which isn't the case with Enlighten or LEPIN.

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    Compare LEGO's Black Seas Barracuda with Enlighten's Adventure for earlier examples, a number of the others are incredibly similar, but I'll admit slightly different. – Zhaph - Ben Duguid Dec 26 '18 at 21:27
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    Is there any legal problem with copying the design of pieces like the ones you're mentioned? If not, then what's the issue but copying the design of a single piece? As a builder, I love the fact that the pieces of different brands look so much alike, as it provides a consistent look-and-feel when I combine multiple brands in one build. – John Slegers Dec 26 '18 at 22:24
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    But again... Aside from possible legal issues, what's the problem with Enlighten using minifigs & accessories that look identical to Lego's? What is the problem with them having their own Knights theme, alongside eg. a military theme or oriental themes? From a customer's perspective, isn't it better to have sets from clone brands that look so much like Lego that they blend in perfectly with your Lego sets rather than a brand (like Mega Bloks) that "stands out"? I love it when I use components from 5 different brands in one build and it all blends in perfectly together! – John Slegers Dec 26 '18 at 22:50
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    "aside from possible legal issues" seems to be whole issue here. (I've moved my comment responses into my answer). – Zhaph - Ben Duguid Dec 26 '18 at 22:55
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    There's nothing intrinsically wrong with having their own knights theme, but why is it based on European questing knights, and not on Quin (i.e. terracotta army) or China vs Mongolia or even just Samurai? They have a rich warrior history (including the invention of gunpowder and cannons, the great wall, etc.) that to limit themselves to copying LEGO exactly seems a shame. – Zhaph - Ben Duguid Dec 26 '18 at 23:02
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I think that the whole issue is a bit complex.

With clone bands, there are many things to consider:

  • Are they producing original set designs, or are they copying LEGO set themes and designs to some extent?
  • Are they producing direct copies of LEGO sets? Especially rare, old, or otherwise valuable items?
  • Are they making sets about themes which they did not legally license from a third party, while LEGO did?
  • Is their product compatible, or incompatible with LEGO (for better or worse)?
  • Do they just use the original brick design (expired patent), or are they also copying other modern element designs (active patent or copyright?) ?
  • Are they producing quality elements, or just some cheap junk that doesn't even stick to itself?
  • Do they copy designs from the AFOL community? (Yes, that has happened)

In the knock-off game, there are several different levels of players. Some knock-offs use the brick design to produce original sets. Others go all the way and shamelessly reproduce official LEGO sets. In the middle we find many more companies who copy the designs of LEGO elements and produce sets with varying degrees of similarity to official LEGO sets. The line between expired patent, copyrighted designs, and such can get very blurry, legally and morally.

The related laws are also regional. In some jurisdictions, LEGO-like-products may not be LEGO-compatible to be considered fair competition (I know this was true in Germany, but I'm not sure if it still is). This may impact the opinions of people in that region.

In my experience, those companies that fall on the more-shameless copying end of the spectrum are the ones that gets the most disdain from AFOL community. Of course, one bad brick can spoil the bunch, and leave everyone who makes LEGO-compatible bricks look bad, particularly among those who do not keep up with which companies do which. Some knock-off brands have even been known to copy some MOC designs from the AFOL community directly, which certain doesn't improve relations.

Another thing to keep in mind, the AFOL community is "Adult Fans of LEGO" and not "Adult Fans of Plastic Building Blocks" so it's likely you will find members of the AFOL community to feel much more strongly about this than the general population.

I think it's fair to say many in the LEGO community don't know much if anything about the origin of the Automatic Binding Bricks, but it's also fair to say there are some big differences between that and modern knock-offs. My understanding is that Christiansen also did not violate the rights of the original patent in the country it was issued (although there may still be a moral issue there). For example, Self-Locking Building Brick and Automatic Binding Bricks were not compatible with each other or sold in the same country, so it wasn't like each company was specifically trying to make a product to replace their competitor's product. Should LEGO acknowledge the full origin of the LEGO brick? Maybe, but I think that’s a separate issue from modern-day knock-offs.

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This question looks more like a covered (and loaded) opinion piece, but I will bite. Although LEGO may have been inspired by the Kiddiecraft prototype, LEGO bricks are not direct copies of the Kiddiecraft and other similar designs that were released by various companies in the 1930s. Kiddiecraft's bricks and similar toys were hollow on the underside with nobs on their tops. They didn't really connect well as the only thing keeping them together was the edges of the bricks.

LEGO's unique contribution to the interlocking brick were the tubes underneath the bricks, which allows a sturdy and versatile connection. This is what LEGO received a patent for. In addition to the original LEGO brick, LEGO continues to design and manufacture thousands of different elements to make up their building system. To say that they are clones of Kiddiecraft and similar early brands is simply incorrect. Kiddiecraft and other early toy companies only made square and/or rectangular bricks. LEGO uses thousands of other unique pieces in their sets.

As far as other companies making construction toys with interlocking bricks, most LEGO fan have no issues with other construction toys, as long as they are high quality, and don't blatantly rip off LEGO's designs. There is a big difference between a company like Mega Construx, Oxford, Kre-O, etc. that releases their own designs, vs. a company like Lepin that simply copies LEGO sets and releases them as their own. The former would be referred to as legitimate construction toy brands, and the latter as clone brands or knock-off brands. Construction toy brands are perfectly legal. Clone brands are not.

It's just like there are many car brands. Are they clones of each other? To some extent, yes. Cars often use the same or similar components, and they need to follow certain standards to be legally running on our roads. So they will look similar in many ways. And historically, there are carts, wagons, chariots and other four-wheeled vehicles that preceded them and inspired the modern car design. To say that a modern Ford is just a clone of a wagon from the middle ages and therefore they have no right to fight someone who tries to rip off their current design wouldn't work well as an argument.

LEGO (and other legitimate construction toy manufacturers) have their own set designers, own part designers, they do their research, they work with children and collectors to see what they like, pay their taxes, provide excellent customer service, stand behind their work, and make an effort to be valuable contributors to society. Knock-off companies, on the other hand, simply try to profit from the hard work of others. They notice something is popular, so they copy it, and sell a cheaper version of the same product. (Of course they can do that, as they don't have to take the same risks and pay the same expenses as a legitimate company would).

This doesn't just happen to LEGO. It happens to manufacturers of cars, shoes, bags, watches, and a myriad of other items. If we, as a society, let knock-off companies get away with blatant stealing just because they can offer us cheaper prices, legitimate companies will simply loose the incentive to produce anything valuable and may even go out of business. Why bother hiring educated and talented designers, why use the best quality manufacturing facilities and raw materials, why care about what people want, when all their hard work is going to be stolen anyway? If we want to advance (or even just maintain) as a society, we need to protect the work of those who provide original contribution and substantial value. There are always going to be people who have no problem with stealing from others. It is in our best long-term interest not to encourage them by supporting their activities.

Hope this helps a little and gives some food for thought. I'm sure others will also share valuable insights. Play well! :)

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    John, one other thing you might consider in your research, is that in the past companies used to be more regional. A product that was manufactured and trademarked in one country only focused on distributing their product in that country and they were happy with that market share. It was common for someone seeing a product in their travels, and than taking it back home to their own country and building something similar or even the same and making this their business. Normally the activities of the original company and the later company didn't clash, as they worked in different markets. – TheBrickBlogger Dec 26 '18 at 21:57
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    ... continuing from my previous comment... Now, that we live in a global economy, rules are quite different. Companies have to patent their products in all the regions they want to operate in to protect their rights. So, when you look at events that happened a long time ago, it is important to consider the landscape people and businesses operated in at that time. Laws were different, business practices were different, and people's attitude to business was different as well. – TheBrickBlogger Dec 26 '18 at 22:02
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    Ah, that's a very interesting question that philosophers have been pondering over for ages! In general, it is best not to use (and definitely not to try to enforce) our own morals and standards on other people and societies. We may not agree with them, we may even be repulsed by them, but we can't expect them to just accept our standards. This is why education is so important. We can show what we feel is a better way. And, hopefully, we will also be open to even better ways that are presented to us. People centuries from now will probably look at us like we were barbarian cavemen. :D – TheBrickBlogger Dec 26 '18 at 22:28
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    Hm... yeah, I read interpretations like that myself. It's a complex issue that I don't think is so black and white. Chinese clones effect regular people too. To stay on topic, Chinese clone brands also rip off designs from ordinary LEGO fans without any credit or sharing of profits. A lot of LEGO fans no longer share pictures of their beautiful designs because of this. It's quite sad... – TheBrickBlogger Dec 26 '18 at 22:34
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    Yes, that's a way to look at it, but many people don't feel that way. They design something with thought and passion, and they're not happy that someone else profits from their work. In general, it's best to ask permission. Some people will feel like you, and will be happy to share, while others prefer to keep their personal projects personal. Nothing wrong with either way. And it may also depend on the project. Michael Jackson didn't mind Weird Al parodying his songs, but he asked him not to parody Black or White, as he felt it was a too important subject. – TheBrickBlogger Dec 26 '18 at 22:55
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Cultural differences around intellectual property

The Western World has a very author-centric view of intellectual property (IP) which mostly plays out in copyright law. We've pushed so hard to protect the "authors" that their monopoly on their creations lasts for decades after they've deceased. The Eastern World seems to take a very factory-centric view of IP. If you have a factory you can build it. The expectation in China is that you will share any improvements to the IP back with the community. This has been very effective at letting China build the largest manufacturing base in the world across numerous forms of technology. They don't seem to have any desire to waste time on licensing or policing pirates. That seems like a natural extension of their fundamental attitude toward IP. Just as naturally we westerners interpret it as piracy and assume that rule of law is also not important to them. This is an oversimplification and we might get along better if we understood the other sides priorities and motivations better.

Clone LEGO is often dismal

So I'm obviously not a fan of copyrights that last 100+ years. One of the things that I've admired about LEGO is that they focused on patenting their early LEGO bricks instead of copyrighting them. I'm sorry that they were sly about borrowing the idea from a competitor. I'm glad they were more successful at popularizing it than their competitor. I'm glad they both had factories to try to succeed with.

As an AFOL that has received some clone sets as gifts now and then I can say that I've been disappointed by the quality every time. Getting rough spots that need to be filed down doesn't seem fun to me. Having some bricks that fit and some that don't doesn't seem to show much effort on the cloners part. Worst of all is bricks that fall apart. If you can't get the clutch power right you shouldn't have put it in a box.

But there is hope

With comprehensive views like Communist LEGO it seems clear that there are some interesting things happening with clone LEGO. I can see myself buying more of it someday. Most of my money will be going for "real" LEGO's because I don't have to worry about quality and I'm very pleased with the creativity they show themselves. Another reason for sticking with LEGO is the community. Where's a part or set database for clone brands? Where's a part and set market like bricklink? If those things make your life better you should usually stick with LEGO too.

I do think it makes sense to buy things from clone manufacturers when LEGO isn't producing it anymore and there's no reasonable price for it on bricklink. The main example that comes to mind is the old-style minifig cases. The new clear ones are ok, but I like the "darker" larger ones from before. I'm glad that some clone manufacturers have picked this up. I've also gotten base plates in colors that LEGO won't make. I got a decent switch cover plate that I would never expect LEGO themselves to make.

  • You said that you've been disappointed by the quality of clone brands. What brands are you talking about? Sure, Mega Bloks totally sucks. And I can't say I'm a fan of Sluban either. But in my experience, Oxford (a Korean brand) is very impressive. And XingBao (the "legal" sister brand of Lepin) is almost just as good. Sure, not all Asian brands have reached their level of quality yet, but personally I'm rarely disappointed by the quality (especially in terms of value for money) of Chinese brands. – John Slegers Dec 29 '18 at 0:46
  • (continued) Adding to this, note that 99% of the pieces used in sets of most clone Chinese brands are identical in terms of look-and-feel to those of Lego pieces. So there's really no need for a database of these brand's pieces. You can replace missing pieces with a Lego piece or mix the pieces of multiple Chinese brands, Oxford & Lego with little to no noticable differences between those pieces. And if you really need just one missing piece, you can often find it on TaoBao or AliExpress (a lot cheaper than on Bricklink), with relative ease, once you learn to find your way on these sites! – John Slegers Dec 29 '18 at 0:51
  • I'm not sure of which brands for the sets I have. The minifig cases from ELiM have been of good quality. – chicks Dec 29 '18 at 1:04
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I don't know of many people who claim that knock-offs generally "steal from Lego" (the largest toy company in the world right now). It's probably fair to say Lepin does, given that they literally copy Lego designs brick-for-brick, but other companies like Mega Bloks doesn't.

In my experience, only one thing really maters, and that's quality. Other brands try to undercut Lego by producing lower-quality pieces. In manufacturing, you pay for precision. The smaller your tolerances, the more it costs, and Lego is famous for their small tolerances, as low 10 micrometres.

To save a few bucks, other brands will allow for greater tolerances, and thus produce a lower-quality product, with pieces that are more likely to wear out or not really stick together well in the first place. They also like to cheat a little by producing oversized specialized pieces that make their models look bigger on the cheap, but ultimately leaves you with a piece that has very little reuse value.

  • Mega Bloks may use oversized specialized pieces that have very little reuse value, but this is not the case for Chinese clone brands. 99% of their pieces are identical to Lego pieces in look-and-feel. And the quality is getting so close to Lego's quality that the quality argument no longer really holds either for most of those brands. – John Slegers Dec 29 '18 at 0:41

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