The New York Times had an interesting article about how the Lego Corporation tries to bully other companies that make interlocking plastic bricks that compete with Lego.
Lego’s main patent on its interlocking plastic bricks expired in 1978, and a number of companies have produced competing products since then. Lego has taken a creative if bizarre approach — since it no longer has a patent in interlocking plastic bricks, its attempted to get trademarks in the image of an interlocking plastic brick. According to The New York Times,
Without any major patents, Lego shifted toward trademark and copyright laws to protect its market. In particular, Lego has tried in many countries to register the appearance of a standard Lego brick with eight studs on top as a trademark.
While Mr. [Poul Hartvig] Nielsen [Lego’s chief counsel] accepts the concept that patents are only supposed to give inventors limited protection from competition, he insisted that Mr. [Ole Kirk] Christiansen [Lego’s founder] designed his bricks with “eye appeal,” which is still covered by copyright and design laws.
So far that argument has won in China, but been rejected by European courts. Lets hope this is a non-starter in the United States.