Are plastic Lego bricks tools of free expression or just toys?
Both, it seems. Toymaker Lego A/S has decided it will no longer try to judge the merits of how its plastic blocks are used in controversial projects, after getting caught in a free speech debate for refusing to supply the bricks to dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
Last year, Lego refused an order from Ai, after the artist reportedly planned to use them in an upcoming exhibit in Australia on free expression. In 2014, Ai built an exhibit featuring Lego brick portraits of dissidents from around the world.
But in a Jan. 12 statement, after several months of protests, the Danish toymaker said it has changed its policy and will stop asking customers what they intend to do with the toys when it gets similar requests.
“As of Jan. 1, the Lego Group no longer asks for the thematic purpose when selling large quantities of Lego bricks for projects,” the company said. “Instead, the customers will be asked to make it clear — if they intend to display their Lego creations in public — that the Lego Group does not support or endorse the specific projects.”
Ai, who in the past had been detained by the Chinese government and investigated for work seen as anti-government, told the BCC that Lego's decision is a “good move” and a “small victory for freedom of speech.”
Lego, which suggested its original decision was about staying out of politics generally, has increasing commercial interests in China.
The company opened a factory in China last year, its first in the country and its first in Asia, in part to tap growing local markets there.
When that $470 million facility is fully operational in 2017, the company said it will have several hundred molding machines and supply the vast majority of its products for Asian markets.
As well, a Legoland theme park is planned for Shanghai. United Kingdom-based park operator Merlin Entertainment plc and Shanghai-based China Media Capital announced that plan in October.
But posts on social media suggested the Ai decision could be hurting Lego with customers elsewhere in the world, as people and art galleries organized donations of Lego blocks to the Chinese artist.
In comments to the BBC, Ai said he received donations from thousands of people.
Previously, Lego said it when it was approached with large volume orders, it would ask about the themes of the project and how the toys would be used because it said its goal is to “inspire children through creative play, not to actively support or endorse specific agendas of individuals or organizations.”
“However, those guidelines could result in misunderstandings or be perceived as inconsistent, and the Lego Group has therefore adjusted the guidelines for sales of Lego bricks in very large quantities,” Lego said.
Ai used Lego's blocks to build portraits of several hundred political activists for a 2014 show at the former Alcatraz prison in California, featuring images of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Nelson Mandela and various Chinese dissidents, including Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and Chen Guangcheng.
The Chinese artist said even decisions about toys send messages about corporate values.
“It is just a toy but every toy reflect[s] the companies understanding about what kind of future we are in, how we encourage our children to understand the very essential values,” he said.