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As Lego bricks turn 60, they face attack of the clones

Theresa Muench

COPENHAGEN, Denmark – For more than half a century, Lego’s colorful plastic bricks have been used to create buildings, cars and planes and other imaginary worlds in playrooms around the world.

Pirates, princesses and space themes were later blended into the mix, following tie-ins and toy series based on blockbuster movie series including Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter.

Meanwhile, clone products that look very much like the original have appeared from rival companies, and the Danish family-owned business has also had to contend with a boom in online gaming.

It all began almost 60 years ago on January 28, 1958. Former Lego managing director Godtfred Kirk Christiansen filed a patent for a small plastic block with two rows of four studs on the top and three tubes on the bottom, and the Lego brick was born. The hidden tubes were the secret as to why his bricks held together and were more stable than many others. The technical patent expired after 20 years.

These days, any company can copy Lego bricks — and quite a few do.

Cheaper bricks: Sluban, a company that has its European headquarters in the Netherlands but produces its toy bricks in China, makes products that fit with Lego bricks but are much cheaper.

Similar strategies drive other firms such as Lepin and Lele. They even offer Lego-like theme worlds. The difference is that they don’t shy away from soldiers and tanks in the playroom, taboo designs for the Danes on ethical grounds.

Lego “can’t do anything” against the copies, Danish patent lawyer Thorbjorn Swanstrom said. “The brick looks the way it does because it has function.”

For years, Lego has gone to court against imitators, often in vain, and Swanstrom said the Lego brick can no longer be protected.

“We all know: none of us like competition. It is brilliant to have a monopoly,” Swanstrom said.

The clone designs are creeping into Lego’s main markets. At first, competing products were sold only in Asia, and then in Greece and Turkey.

“Now they are coming to Northern Europe,” Swanstrom said. Even in Denmark, a large toy chain recently offered clone Lego blocks, shortly before Christmas.

Market leader: In Germany, Lego continues to be the undisputed market leader. According to the German Toy Trade Association, the Danish firm is the manufacturer with the highest turnover in the German toy market – far ahead of Ravensburger, Playmobil and Simba.

Lego copies have not appeared in the German statistics yet, said Willy Fischel, who heads the association. But, in Germany, Lego’s turnover fell by 2 percent from January to October according to BVS.

It’s part of a more general negative trend for Lego. During the first half of 2017, the companies decreased by 3 to 5 percent from the comparable period last year. Even 2016 had its challenges, especially in the important markets of Europe and the United States, where sales are slipping. Recently, Lego said it would cut around 1,400 jobs worldwide, about 8 percent of its workforce.

Digital: Despite the threat of intense competition, the Danish company is trying to stay calm, it seems.

“Fair competition is in our best interest. It keeps us sharp,” company spokesman Roar Rude Trangbaek said, adding that the toymaker doesn’t consider Lego clone products its greatest threat.

“We are competing for the children’s time. They can either play with toys or with digital devices,” Trangbaek said.

Lego has seen how the toy market is changing and is now investing in an online platform where children can download construction designs and share photos of their Lego models with others. It’s all about giving the product a “digital layer.”

“We want to be part of everything children spend their time on,” Trangbaek said. “It is all centered on the Lego block.”