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Ask HN: Are works created in Lego copyrightable?
56 points by lawlessbricks 31 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 47 comments
My understanding is that Lego bricks are a system. Their website footer says LEGO System A/S, DK-7190 Billund, Denmark.

And that in the US systems are not copyrightable: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/102

Example 1: If someone views https://www.lego.com/cdn/product-assets/product.bi.core.pdf/6259467.pdf (generic airplane), and physically creates the model with Lego bricks, is there copyright infringement?

Example 2: If someone looks at a picture of LEGO bricks: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shamisenfred/50193102497/ and builds the same result, is there copyright infringement?

If there are no trademarked or registered copyrighted works present in the Lego bricks, is it infringement to then sell that collection of Lego bricks and/or custom generated instructions that use no LEGO brand assets or trademarks with a disclaimer that it is not an official Lego product? (People are doing this, but the part that’s unclear is “is there copyright on the Lego creation itself, or just the “cookbook” that is the instruction manual and graphics therein?)

It is 1000% clear that you cannot reprint LEGO group or anyone else’s instruction book as that would be clear cut copyright infringement. My understanding is that two people could produce instructions that generate the same result as they describe a system for building.

So Lego Group and anyone else who creates their own custom instruction manual can have copyright over the manual as an expression, but not the system it builds is my understanding.

If you are a Lawyer or know a lawyer who'd be interested in talking more, I'm happy to pay for your time. Make sure your email is on your profile or link to it here. HN has all walks of life so there may be one here!




Keep in mind: If you do something that bothers Lego or any of the rights holders for their tie-ins, you have a problem. If you have $1M and 2-5 years to spend on litigation, a court might be able to determine exactly how much of a problem you have. But if you don't have that much time and money, you have an insurmountable problem. All you can do is cease & desist.

For example, the case of whether the Java API is copyrightable has been going on for 10 years and we still don't know the answer. Google and Oracle can afford to duke it out for that long, but you probably can't.

So exactly what the law allows only matters if you're prepared to litigate. Otherwise, plan A should be to not bother anyone.

A strategy that sometimes works is to proactively reach out and talk about how your site will be good free marketing for their products.


There is an answer from a real lawyer on this website [1]

Summary: "Copyright covers works of original authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, even LEGO building bricks."

[1] https://www.avvo.com/legal-answers/can-you-copyright-a-lego-...


I don't see your quotation in the given reference; none of the three answers seems to correspond to it.

But you can find an answer e.g. in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright#Eligible_works; it depends on the juristiction. A sculpture or industrial design could be made from LEGO bricks; if these are covered by copyright laws in your juristiction there is still the question of originality, see e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threshold_of_originality.


> I don't see your quotation in the given reference...

That quote is the second sentence of Bruce Burdick's reply. Not sure why you're not seeing it.


I've actually reached out to that Lawyer and am waiting to hear back. :)


Copyright law is variable worldwide and (in the EU) the question is actually shifting a bit at the moment but speaking very generally,

You can create your own things in Lego and that will be your own copyright work if you've exercised your own creative input in making it.

If it's a copy of someone else's Lego model (or equivalent) that's not your work and would infringe theirs.

If you're portraying some external thing with Lego the question is more complicated. It varies from a general impressionist rendition of some thing (your work) to a pixel-by-pixel perfect recreation in little Lego dots (not your work). But that's not specific to Lego.

This is just a thumbnail sketch of a huge question. Your examples are useful but don't cover the full range of texture that real life brings.


> If it's a copy of someone else's Lego model (or equivalent) that's not your work and would infringe theirs.

If I build the lego plane in the example above out of Lego bricks I own, have I infringed on Lego's copyright? (I don't think they own a copyright on the configuration of the bricks, or else, it would be really hard to police, wouldn't it? Everyone that builds that model would be infringing!)


The company has a copyright on the sculptures shown in the examples provided but are clearly meant to be replicated for your personal use and enjoyment. If you built a lot of sculptures matching the example and attempted to sell them, the company could sue you for distributing copies of their work without their permission.


This all hinges on if their work is the sculpture itself, or everything around it, if the sculptures of made of lego bricks are recipes.


As I see it, the instructions for making the sculpture are a recipe and thus not under copyright. The final sculpture isn't a recipe and isn't functional (ie: food, clothing, etc.) and thus is under copyright. Otherwise you get silly things like all digital works not being under copyright because you can make a recipe of computer actions that creates them.


Recipes for food dishes are not copyrightable, I'm not certain all instructions for making things are treated the same but let's assume for the moment they are.

If the instructions for assembly are in the form of photos or diagrams (or video), I think copyright is still in effect, either they're a derivative work of the original sculpture or have their own copyright. I think instructions for assembly written out in words would not be copyrightable ("Place a 2x8 blue plate on the bottom then stack three 2x4 black bricks on top of each other at the left side of the plate, …), if they're considered equivalent to recipes for food.


From what I've learned, Even if the recipe was in a video, You cannot make a video in the same "style" but the recipe itself is not copyright, so if you made a video of that recipe yourself that was different (different set, different host, different music) you'd have copyright on that video, but neither you nor the original video creator on the recipe itself.

This is how I think it applies to lego as well, but as we see from the comments here a lot of other non-lawyers like me are surprised by that.

When I started this question in my head a few days ago, I absolutely 100% thought creations made from lego designs were copyrightable, but through my research, I'm now at this point.


A sculpture made out of Lego is not a recipe for making that sculpture. A photo of the sculpture is not a recipe.

You can't "clean room" copyrighted works, if you coincidentally made an identical plane (same parts) without having ever seen their plane or instructions, you could still be infringing on their copyright.

There are limits, just as you can copyright a story but not a sentence, there are likely combinations of bricks that are too simple to be copyrightable.

Copyright holders can grant blanket permissions for use of their works, or derivatives, with certain parameters. What you're going to do with your copy of a work matters, that's where fair use (or "fair dealing" in some nations) may come in. Whether commerce is involved matters. Some things are technically copyrighted but are considered to have no value; a court may not grant damages but could still compel the defendant to stop distributing the work.


I highly recommend that you contact LEGO’s customer service directly with the question, as they are easy to reach and they really take pride in being available and they try to provide answers or point to people who can (source: dude trust me)


People on customer service teams are not qualified to provide legal advice. Neither are random people on an internet discussion board.

edit: With this said, neither of the two example scenarios presented by lawlessbricks encompasses the act of copyright infringement, in my mind, simply by building a model based on a schematic or photograph with no further actions. You can assemble whatever you want with the bricks you own in the comfort of your home and no one can or should stop you from doing that. Assembly is not equal to reproduction in the eyes of a copyright.

I'm not a lawyer and copyright law varies drastically depending where you are and how much money either you or your plaintiff have.


They could have a set of legal-approved answers to FAQ’s though.


Lego does, actually, look for their "Fair Play" brochure:

https://www.lego.com/en-us/legal/


> My understanding is that Lego bricks are a system. Their website footer says LEGO System A/S, DK-7190 Billund, Denmark.

> And that in the US systems are not copyrightable: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/102

Wouldn't this logic imply that operating systems are not copyrightable, or that works created using products from Adobe Systems Inc. are not copyrightable?


> Wouldn't this logic imply that operating systems are not copyrightable, or that works created using products from Adobe Systems Inc. are not copyrightable?

Operating systems are copyright as literary work AFAIK.

You can copyright the output of a system AFAIK, but with Lego, the output is the system.

For example, if you make a graphic in photoshop, the result is it's own entity.

The result of building in lego may look like something new, but it exists as lego. My argument is a lego model is just pretty instructions that is merged with the work and cannot be separated.

Hoping a lawyer will pop in so I can pay them some money to answer this. :)

(I talked with one, and they agreed with my original logic. I'm looking for a few more to understand the spectrum.)

And to be clear, if you take a picture of your lego design, that photograph is 100% your copyright.

If you make a graphical depiction of your lego creation, that is 100% your copyright.

If you make something in lego -- is it copyrightable?


A sound recording is just a combination of building blocks as well, individual frequencies with specific amplitudes and phase shifts. Why wouldn't the same argument apply?


My current theory (not a lawyer) is that a sound recording is 1 expression of the idea (captured in that specific way). That makes it copyrightable.

I think Lego falls under merger doctrine: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idea%E2%80%93expression_distin...


> Lego bricks are a system. Their website footer says LEGO System A/S, DK-7190 Billund, Denmark. And that in the US systems are not copyrightable

Having the word "System" in the company name doesn't mean anything. But a Lego System does seem to be a thing [0], "The LEGO System means that: all elements fit together, can be used in multiple ways, can be built together. This means that bricks bought years ago will fit perfectly with bricks bought in the future."

I'm not sure what "system" means in a copyright sense but I what Lego seems to mean by "system" is a consistent set of parts and ways for those parts to fit together. If that's what copyright means by "system" you can't copyright that but I think that's what Lego has patented.

The existence of the system would have no bearing on the copyrightability of any work created out of the parts they designed and connected using their system. I can buy a bunch of gray and white Lego, fit them together to make a sculpture that looks like my cat and have a copyright on that work (if it's sufficiently original).

[0] https://www.lego.com/en-us/lego-history/lego-system-in-play-...


> The existence of the system would have no bearing on the copyrightability of any work created out of the parts they designed and connected using their system.

I would love examples of this -- as I think it's the crux.

I've looked at some case law earlier this week, but I didn't find any specifically calling out systems.


IANAL; this is not legal advice.

My instinct is yes lego models would attract copyright protection, but copyright applies to works that have a distinctive quality to them. If you make a generic house, no copyright.

Also, people only infringe if they copy, just creating the same lego model isn't enough and courts are likely to need extraordinary proof to sway the 'balance of probabilities' towards the work being a copy.

Yes, instructions can be reproduced as they are factual and not artistic, but you can't necessarily copy the way the instructions are presented (eg images are likely to be protected by copyright, but an image of a single brick wouldn't pass the distinctiveness threshold; and also probably wouldn't be copied).

You'd need to make it explicitly clear if you didn't have trademark approval from Lego that your lego models were not originated by them (if your images show their bricks or use the word "lego").

In the UK, Design Rights might be more relevant, but I know very little about them. In other countries Utility Patents might also have relevance.

If your designs are functional then the functional elements won't accrue copyright/design rights.

In UK you'd probably be limited to actual damages for infringements (people copying your lego model), ~£0.

I consider lego to be genericised, but courts would probably disagree.

This post represents my private, personal opinion and in no way relates to my employment.


I'm not a lawyer, but I think you are misunderstanding paragraph b:

> In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

I think what that means is that just because your copyrighted work describes or represents some system it doesn't mean that you have copyrighted the system itself. For example if you write a book that describes an operating system in general terms it doesn't mean that you have any rights to the general concept of an operating system as it exists in any form apart from your book.

So I don't think that paragraph is relevant to whether a work made of LEGO bricks is copyrightable or not (I think that the answer to that question would typically be yes).


Embodied: be an expression of or give a tangible or visible form to (an idea, quality, or feeling).

If I create a lego model, and put it in front of you, and give you the blocks you need to create that model, is the model not a tangible embodiment of the recipe that is that lego model?

Now, if I made a from-scratch, clay model of a plane, and then said to you, recreate exactly this from clay, if you did it would be infringement IMO, because you didn't copy the recipe, but 100% recreated it.

The final form of the clay work, is separate from the recipe to create it. With Lego, it's visible in every brick connection line.

My argument is lego are a procedure, which the result embodies the procedure, sort of like a quine. (again, I'm not a lawyer.)


Your argument would apply equally well to a book. A book is nothing but a sequence of symbols chosen from a small finite set. Therefore a book is actually a recipe for recreating itself because the book tells you exactly how to arrange it's symbols in order to recreate it. Hence applying your reasoning it follows that a book is not copyrightable. But we all know that books are copyrightable, so your argument must be flawed.


Not a lawyer, but I'd be happy to bet that works in LEGO are copyrightable. After all, LEGO is just the medium for an expression here, and by creating something with LEGO as that medium you have made a (hopefully) original work.

I don't see the difference between LEGO, bits of code, a book, an audio recording or a work of art such as a sculpture or a painting.

That said, since LEGO itself started out by infringing on the intellectual property rights of others as far as I'm concerned they can jump into a lake, but that's not something that will get you very far in a court in case you get sued.

https://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/03/lego-stole-...



Nothing complicated about it: LEGO stole the idea, copied the marketing materials and the boxes including the artwork, improved on the design a bit and proceeded to sue everybody and their brother who made 'counterfeit' LEGO.

That they bought the rights to the Kiddiecraft designs many years later was just a way to whitewash this sordid part of their history.

By then Page had already committed suicide.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilary_Page#Death

LEGO: great toy, terrible company.


> After all, LEGO is just the medium for an expression here, and by creating something with LEGO as that medium you have made a (hopefully) original work.

Again, I'm not a Lawyer, but I think this is covered by merger: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/media_law_prof_blog/2006/0...

There are only so many ways to connect Lego bricks which is the part I'm trying to understand.


> There are only so many ways to connect Lego bricks which is the part I'm trying to understand.

There are only so many ways to arrange the sample bits in an audio file 3 minute long, yet an audio file can contain copyrightable music.

There are only so many combinations of characters that could occur in a reasonable sized book.

There are only so many ways to color pixels in a photograph.

Etc.


Also not a lawyer, but aren't there infinite-ish ways to connect Lego bricks?

You can keep making a bigger version of the same thing


> LEGO itself started out by infringing on the intellectual property rights

IIUC, there were no intellectual property rights infringed. There was no Danish or Scandinavian patent on the bricks, only a British one.


That didn't stop LEGO from patenting the bricks themselves and suing others. Ole Kirk (who is pretty much revered as a Saint within Denmark) performed a clear case of IP theft and built an empire on it.


How can you call it “IP theft” when what they did wasn’t even meant to be illegal? If someone invents something, do you think they have some global moral rights to that invention, regardless of patents? Patents are created for each individual nation, and back in those days, IIUC, it was the norm that people would discover things abroad, bring them home, patent them locally, and sell them. Patents were in effect a tool to finance marketing of useful inventions to a local market.


IANAL

I suspect that plain lego bricks are not original enough to warrant copyright (threshold of originality and also very utilitarian - utility objects dont have copyright in usa) but the little lego figurines might be copyrighted.

Basing this on: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Derivative_works#...


Interlocking blocks are like words. You can string them together in any number of ways, most of which have no value.

However, some of these ways are aesthetically or mechanically interesting, and are up to the designer to discover.

After this pattern/arrangement is discovered, it’s exact layout can be copyrighted.

Now, modifications by others to the layout would not be protected so long as it was different enough. (Fashion has this same issue, the difference can be extremely minor, and then it is not covered).


> However, some of these ways are aesthetically or mechanically interesting, and are up to the designer to discover.

For the US:

Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be.

I agree with you that a designer working in Lego may discover new ways to piece the bricks together, but is that expression of connecting the bricks itself copyrightable, or just the resulting photos, videos, collateral?


While the interpretation of the Berne Convention will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, Chief Justice McLachlin of Canada's Supreme Court offers significant guidance https://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/2004/2004scc13/2004scc1...

> In addition, an original work must be the product of an author’s exercise of skill and judgment. The exercise of skill and judgment required to produce the work must not be so trivial that it could be characterized as a purely mechanical exercise.

We should check the German Supreme Court as well https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=347fb9e3-0348...

> for the protection of works of applied art under copyright law “a degree of creativity which allows, from the view of a public open to art and sufficiently skilled in ideas of art, to be called an ‘artistic’ performance”

In both of your examples and your further question alas there is nothing clear cut here. If someone copied Example 2 and decided to sell it to a museum as a piece of modern art and the museum decided to accept it as such, there's a very high chance of a successful lawsuit of infrigement. In most cases, however, you might find it extremely challenging to prove in a lawsuit that something made from LEGO reaches the treshold of originality.

And can you sell instructions and LEGO pieces? Sure, why not. You own the LEGO pieces, under the first sale doctrine, LEGO has exhausted their rights to them. Creating new instructions are free speech and as such, they are absolutely impossible to stop. Even in jurisdictions where free speech is more limited in the United States, legislators have been extremely careful on setting those limits. (Even where lockpicking is not legal, lockpicking videos absolutely are. Agatha Christie novels are sold despite they could be viewed as recipes on how to commit murder. And so forth.) Now, if someone produces a different set of instructions that results in the same thing, there's nothing you can do to stop them as ideas are not copyrightable. You could patent it should it rise the level of patentability.


Not a lawyer but I'd just point out that your example 2 isn't just a picture of something built with LEGO bricks. I'm assuming the original LEGO bricks are out of patent (which may be relevant here as well) but other parts may not be.

In addition, while it's presumably not applicable in this case, some LEGO sets are presumably licensed from the holders of trademarks or other IP (as in the case of Star Wars sets). Whereas a knock off would not be.

But again IANAL.


> I'm assuming the original LEGO bricks are out of patent (which may be relevant here as well) but other parts may not be.

My understanding is patents protect Lego from other entities reproducing brick designs based on their patents. (Think Lepin lego clone bricks:https://technicstory.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/servo2.j...)

If patent means people cannot create objects (copyrighted or not) from Lego bricks without infringing on Lego patent, the point of the toy is moot.

> some LEGO sets are presumably licensed from the holders of trademarks or other IP (as in the case of Star Wars sets).

Correct, I'm sure if someone made a Tie-fighter out of lego and started selling it, Disney could come after them, because it infringes on their trademark and possibly registered copyright.


>protect Lego from other entities reproducing brick designs

That's what I was saying. There are many different parts in that picture and some of them may still be covered by patents.


IANAL etc

Recipes are not copyrightable, in general - though that is a complex question in its own right - but the text is. So I think you're correct in saying if someone follows a set of instructions and rewrites them in their own words, they are probably fine. That being said, Lego is awesome and I wouldn't want to annoy them, as they might stop selling me the bricks...


This sounds like, what is Is known in the world of LEGO as a My Own Creation (MOC). Tons is sites sell plans and brick kits to build all manner of sculptures and dioramas. Maybe this will give you a research avenue to answer your question.


Right, but do the creators of MOCs have rights to the layout of the Lego, or just the instructions and images they use to present that work? (It's unclear hence me hoping a lawyer in the HN community takes a look. :)


There is an artist that makes lego sculpture. Since he is famous, I'd imagine he solved whatever problem is related to the fact that he uses lego.




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