Danish toy maker Lego has won a US copyright infringement suit against a British competitor.
In a judgment on Thursday, July 25, the US District Court for the District of Connecticut found that figurines sold by Best-Lock Construction Toys infringed a number of Lego’s US copyright registrations, which it has owned since 1994.
While the court largely ruled in favour of Lego, it was undecided on Best Lock’s equitable estoppel defence, which it said would be adjudicated at a plenary bench trial at a later date.
The dispute dates to 2011, when Lego sued Best-Lock for producing and selling allegedly infringing minifigurines.
It said that Best-Lock’s advertisements of its minifigurines had highlighted the “well-known interchangeability of Best-Lock figures and their body parts with Lego's”.
In its judgment, the court said Best-Lock had failed to provide evidence to show that Lego’s copyright registrations are invalid or unreliable. It deemed the UK-based company’s argument that the registrations are invalid because “certain design elements in question are functional” as “unavailing”.
The court said that while certain elements of the logo minifigures are indeed functional, the mere fact that some elements are functional does not render the work uncopyrightable.
It also said it is “beyond dispute” that Best-Lock had access to Lego’s copyrighted work.
The court referred to evidence of a 2012 interview of Best-Lock’s CEO, in which he said that “as a child growing up in Germany he had admired Lego toys but later discovered, as a young father in England, that Lego itself had copied ‘the bricks invented by a British psychologist in the 1940s’”.
The court found that the best-Lock’s products are “not just probatively similar” to Lego’s, but “indistinguishable”.
“A comparison of the works makes clear that Best-Lock has copied protectable, expressive elements that are original to Lego,” it added.
In its defence, Best-Lock argued that while it had been selling its toys in the US for years beforehand, Lego only filed a lawsuit against it in the US after US Customs and Border Protection seized a series of shipments of Best-Lock’s toy blocks and minifigures.
US Customs and Border Protection said it had carried out the seizures because they infringed Lego’s copyright.
“Lego had not previously attempted to stop Best-Lock's sale of its blocks and figures in the US, and had not issued any warning or given Best-Lock any notice that it believed Best-Lock's minifigures infringed any Lego copyrights,” the filing said.
Additionally, it said Lego’s direct communications with Best-Lock abroad misled Best-Lock into believing that Lego would not sue the company in the US.