In a legal battle over plastic, interconnecting construction blocks, Mega Brands Inc. is asking a federal court in California to invalidate Lego’s trademark.
The most recent incarnation of this ongoing dispute between the two companies arose because of an announcement by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that it is clamping down on toy imports. In an effort to keep its “Mega Bloks” in the United States marketplace, Montreal-based Mega Brands has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California asking the court to cancel Lego Juris A/S and Lego Group’s 1999 trademark as well as issue an injunction that would stop any adverse action against Mega Brands imports.
The two products are remarkably similar in appearance and, in fact, can be used interchangeably with one another. But don’t tell that to either of them.
To date, Lego’s attempts to enforce its trademark against Mega Brands have failed in several countries including the United States, France, Germany, Italy, and Canada. The European Court of Justice has specifically ruled that the physical components of Legos that allow them to connect with one another cannot be trademarked; Lego’s patents for the design expired more than two decades ago in 1988.
Lego, based in Denmark, has not commented on the lawsuit.
This case is a great example of the intersection between patent and trademark law and how different types of intellectual property rights protect different aspects of a business.
Patents protect designs of inventions, and according to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), come in three varieties:
1) Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;
2) Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and
3) Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.
Trademarks, on the other hand, are used, or intended to be used, to identify the goods of one manufacturer from the goods of others — brand names and logos, essentially.
And as we can see from the Lego/Mega Brand battle, there are real differences in the protections afforded by different forms of intellectual property, as well as differences in how different countries think of those protections.