Every few years, it seems, the U.S. patent for the Lego brick is posted and linked around the Internet, reminding us all that the business that has spawned billions of dollars in sales began with a simple design for interlocking toy bricks.
Last week, the website Mental Floss posted a copy of the 1961 patent application filed by the precursor of today's Lego A/S, which came after a 1958 Danish patent. That post may have been the reason why your social media stream was populated with Lego links the past few days. (At least if your social circle is filled with the same kind of creative nerds as mine.)
It patent itself cites previous patents for building toys dating back to 1896, and both Lego and its competitors have cited the 1961 patent as they built on the humble ABS brick.
In fact, that original U.S. Lego patent was cited in two patents published just last week — one for an “elastically averaged alignment system” from GM Global Technology Operations LLC and another for “character count determination for a digital image” from the United States Automobile Association. Exactly what those two systems have to do with Lego is beyond my pay grade, but that patent obviously is still a key document even though the actual patent expired a few years ago.
But even though Lego's patent is officially in the public domain, the company continues its dominance in the toy industry. And its name continues to be linked to its specific product, rather than becoming a generic like other trade names such as “Kleenex” or “Band-Aid.”
I'm no marketing or business expert, but perhaps it's because Lego has continued to innovate even as it has stayed true to its core product: the interlocking brick.
It has signed onto marketing deals to create play sets for other pop culture powerhouses such as “Star Wars,” while also selling bricks to artists who make unique sculptures and 3-D replicas of buildings and monuments that Lego never designed.
It has opened a series of Legoland attractions globally while also investing in production around the world — with molding coming on line soon in China — so it can reach both customers in already established regions and those new to the brand.
Even the company's investment in materials of the future — spending more than $150 million to open the Lego Sustainable Materials Center at its headquarters in Billund, Denmark, to find a renewably sourced resin to replace the standard ABS is in bricks — doesn't lose sight of its past.
Company leaders have insisted that any replacement it adopts must be able to work right alongside existing bricks that have been passed from generation to generation of Lego fans, so the bricks will be able to be used for years in the future right alongside existing bricks, long after any patent for any formulation is issued.