We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Lego vs Lepin

I like Lego. It is nostalgic. It is a good quality product: the bricks fit together just so. It has a certain feel to it. I like the product design. I like the Ninjago and the Technic. I like the movies. I do not want Lego to change. I do not want to hear about them taking the monosodium glutamate out of the bricks to save the environment because I know the world will be a worse place as a result: the bricks will not feel the same or they will not last as long or they will not fit together in quite the same way. I get warm fuzzy feelings about the company. I do not want them cutting costs or laying off staff or going out of business.

I do not like Lepin. Lepin is a Chinese company who copy Lego sets piece for piece, slightly change the artwork into a bizarre alternate reality version of the original artwork, and sell them for a fraction of the price. It is an inferior product: the bricks do not fit together so well, the plastic is not so durable, there is probably a greater chance of having a set with a missing piece, there are reports of strange residue on the bricks. More importantly, if other consumers do not mind these things as much as I do and do not love genuine original Lego as much as I do, I am more likely to find myself living in a universe where original genuine Lego is not as good as it is now because it is pressured into cost-cutting, just as I find myself living in a universe where Nik Naks don’t contain monosodium glutamate for some unfathomable reason.

Chinese police raided Lepin factories in China, arrested people and seized goods. Now people are saying that Lepin is no more. It is the end of Lepin and Lego is saved. Hurray!

But I am not sure how happy to be about state violence against non-violent people who did no more than copy an idea. I am ambivalent about intellectual property. Lepin did not take anything that Lego had not already given away the moment they published their designs. A lot of activists complain about digital rights management. I see it as an elegant non-violent method to preserve a revenue stream for a product that is by its nature infinitely copy-able. DRM is much better than inducing the state to lock up people who threaten your business model. It does not really work for designs for physical objects but despite my concerns above I am not convinced this is a big enough problem to warrant a large state apparatus just to solve it. Lepin bricks are, after all, only viable because they are cheaper, and only cheaper because they are inferior. As much as I enjoy living in a universe with monosodium glutamate snacks and real Lego, raids and arrests and seizures is not a good price to pay for this.

Another question that arises out of this: why now? Is the Chinese state making a renewed effort to align with the rest of the western world’s ideas about intellectual property, or did the owners of the Lepin factory recently stop paying their dues to the state?

50 comments to Lego vs Lepin

  • neonsnake

    How violent was the state violence? They “smashed” equipment…did they break heads too?

    Or did they arrest people for breaking a law? (Yes, with the implicit threat of violence for resisting and so on, which is after all the power that the police rely on)

    Intellectual property is slippery, for sure, especially when butting up against the “information wants to be free” crowd, but I often come across articles about independent designers whose work has been copied and used by big fashion companies. I feel a lot of sympathy for them, someone has stolen the “sweat of their brow”, as it were.

    I feel it would be poor form of me to feel very sorry for, and supportive of, Mimi the Independent Designer, but not for Lego the big corporation 🙂

  • Runcie Balspune

    I don’t think IP is the issue, the LEGO patent expired some time back, and Mega Bloks was sued unsuccessfully several times. LEGO have continued to be successful because of new ideas such as Bionicles, Technics, Mindstorms, etc, as well as the tie-ins with franchises (Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc).

  • Gavin Longmuir

    From the linked website: “Its Not Lego is a blog about Lego clones, fake lego, bootleg lego, and alternate block brands, such as Lepin (Nuogao), Bela, Xingbao, Decool, Enlighten, and Sheng Yuan, just to name a few.”

    One down, many more Lego clones to go.

    Puzzling. Is this really an attempt by Chinese authorities to stamp out the theft of Intellectual Property? Or is it kabuki theater for negotiations about Chinese access to the important Danish market? Or is it a case of ‘Kill the chicken to frighten the monkey’, to persuade other more important IP thieves to mend their ways? Or is it punishment for Lepin’s failure to pay off the right authorities in China? Maybe we will never know.

    My Chinese friends generally seem to prefer buying brand name items while on trips outside China, even though the same items are readily available in China itself. They are highly conscious of the risk of copies. At least Lepin was not selling their product as pretend Legos — perhaps other Chinese manufacturers will conclude it is safer to make unauthorized copies than to set up a competing brand?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Rob, a very good posting. Thanks. :>)

    I never developed a Thing for Legos (I’m from the era of building blocks, Tinkertoys and Erector Sets), but one of my Things is the madness of the idea that Amazon has Made All Our Lives Better. For some people in some circumstances, yes it has. But there are quite a few of us who much preferred a store like Borders, where you could go and look at the merchandise, give interesting-looking books of which you were previously unaware a good browsing, see of what you thought sounded interesting really is. I very very rarely buy books from Amazon, because I’d rather pay the lower price for what looks like a good choice from eBay. (And to me, buying clothes or shoes via mail-order is insane unless there’s no feasible alternative. Sending them back when they don’t fit, which is mostly — and about guaranteed for shoes — is a hassle I don’t need.)

    But Borders wasn’t able to figure out a way to hang onto its business. (And Barnes & Noble, I’m sorry to say, has always been a joke in comparison, and even in comparison with Waldon Books, or Crown Publishers. And even B&N is not exactly thriving — I think.)

    However, J.B. has said he’s going to open some real bookstores. Be interesting to see how that goes.

    I’m still an IP stalwart, so I agree with neon on his point. It also applies when some small competitor copies and uses the work developed by or paid for (via a royalty or purchase of a patent) by a Big Company. Theft is theft, whether the ripper or the ripped-off is the underdog or the wealthier. And what is stolen — and what gives property its moral status in the first place — is the fact that it’s the product of a part of somebody’s life, or has been obtained as a trade or a gift.

    IMO, anyway.

  • Agammamon

    neonsnake
    May 1, 2019 at 5:45 pm

    How violent was the state violence? They “smashed” equipment…did they break heads too?

    Or did they arrest people for breaking a law? (Yes, with the implicit threat of violence for resisting and so on, which is after all the power that the police rely on)

    I threaten to kill you if you won’t comply. You comply. There’s no violence there?

    I mean, let’s not lie to ourselves. Personally, as an American Libertarian, I believe in a minimal state accountable to its citizens – but I don’t kid myself that every law passed, even if its unanimously passed by 100% of the citizenry directly, is not backed up by a willingness to kill those who won’t comply.

    That state is violence. That’s the point of having one.

  • neonsnake

    Virtue-signalling time, I guess.

    Ms Neonsnake makes a significant amount of her income by drawing pictures of other people’s dogs. They send her photographs, she performs witchcraft in photoshop and illustrator and they pay her money. Often, she draws pictures of people’s dogs that have passed away (we have two dogs ourselves, so this is not an unemotional experience for us).

    Couple years ago, someone decided they could use her designs on t-shirts, without compensating her. Me, being a six-foot male of the hairy-chested variety, did not take well to this decision. I offer no argument as to my bias on this. She is, quite clearly, the greatest illustrator to have ever lived. So, when someone decides to make money from using her drawings on t-shirts, without compensating her…I dunno. Maybe it’s ok. But i disagreed in the strongest terms.

    But all I remember is her sitting at the table drawing, erasing, and starting again whilst I’m cooking dinner in the kitchen and asking if she’s ready to eat yet.

    So yeah. If people want to use those hours that she put into her work to make money, maybe I’m not cool with that.

    So my recompense is what?

    Direct violence? Sure. Ok. Would have made me feel better, sure, and all grrrr and manly.

    Or, legal threats (ie. state backed violence)

    Or…we just leave it. We let people take her work and make money from it. Sure.

    So yeah, what’s your suggestion?

    And whatever your suggestion is – why does it apply more to a one-person illustrator, than to a corporation?

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Julie: “… there are quite a few of us who much preferred a store like Borders …”

    As a fan of the late lamented Borders, let me pass on a tale of my last visit to a now-closed Borders store. And guess what? It is almost on topic!

    My companion & I had been roaming the shelves at Borders, and decided to stop for lunch in its coffee shop. We were lucky to find the last open table — most of the others being occupied by the kind of person who looked like a Leftie student. (Come on! We all make assessments of people within our threat radius, all the time). The Leftoid at a neighboring table was looking at his laptop, using the free WiFi Borders provided. He had a thermos flask in his standard granola backpack, from which he topped up his coffee from time to time — not Borders coffee. And then he reached into his backpack and pulled out a sandwich — clearly not a Borders sandwich. In the meantime, potential paying customers were arriving, unsuccessfully seeking a table, and leaving looking disappointed.

    That store went out of business. I wonder if the free-riding Leftie student feels any responsibility for the workers who lost jobs and the investors who lost money in part because he prevented willing customers from paying Borders for services.

    The link to Lego is that there are many ways individuals and businesses (and Governments!) can take things which don’t really belong to them. And some of them are legal.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Neonsnake: “So yeah, what’s your suggestion?”

    Remember the old adage — ‘A patent is merely a license to sue’. If the offending t-shirts are being printed in your town, you put lifts in your heaviest work boots, rip open your shirt to expose that hairy chest, stride noisily into the cheating store and demand justice. On the other hand, if the t-shirts are being printed in Uttar Pradesh, you take your wife out for a nice meal and remind her that life is unfair.

    With appropriate adjustments for size, this same policy applies to a corporation as to an individual.

  • bobby b

    ” . . . information wants to be free . . .”

    “Money wants to be free!” – Al Capone, 1945.

    “Big-screen televisions want to be free!” – anon. burglar, circa 2000.

    “Cadillac Escalades want to be free!” – bobby b, just now.

    Sorry, but information only started to want its freedom right at the point when we started storing it digitally and so made its theft trivial.

  • Rob Fisher

    neonsnake: In principle any law is backed by violence, including breaking heads depending on how much you resist it. In practice there’s room for discussion about proportionality and how sympathetic the perpetrators are, I suppose.

    Julie: IP is definitely something reasonable people can disagree on. Partly my post is a ramble on how things make me happy even if they go against my deep principles, or sad even though they don’t. The market, for better or worse, does not want to provide snacks with MSG right now. Or fizzy drinks with real sugar. Mostly because other customers in the majority have the wrong desires, though it is their right. But at least the market will provide proper Lego for a while longer thanks to the Chinese state.

    So neonsnake’s other point: yes it sucks when other people make money from your work. But maybe that’s as good as it gets. Or maybe the state backed violence is worth it. I don’t have all the answers.

  • Being a parent, I dream of a world without Lego, where Lego has never been invented, a world where I will be richer and happier and not keep coming across horrid little bits of Lego for years and years, most of which I step on with my bare feet, and will not have to pay exorbitant sums for a few bits of plastic made up to look like the latest bit of pop culture crap.

    But if the rest of you want to buy the stuff, sure, knock yourself out.

  • Fraser Orr

    @bobby b
    Sorry, but information only started to want its freedom right at the point when we started storing it digitally and so made its theft trivial.

    I don’t think that is true at all. Information has always wanted to be free. Freedom of information sharing is, for example, the foundation of most scientific ideas, yes even back in the days before the web, in fact all the way back to papyrus and quill pens. Issac Newton could not have stood on the shoulders of giants had those giants demanded a license fee for every thought that popped out of their heads.

    I know this is a point on which libertarians strongly disagree but I continue to come down on the side of freedom of information. I think patents in particular are a horrendous violation of people’s right to self determination, and copyrights, while having a stronger case, are probably on net a bad thing too.

    The difference between Cadillacs or Big screen TVs verses a pretty frock design or a great tune is that only one person can use a Cadillac or a big screen TV (approximately speaking) but a billion people can wear a frock design or hum a tune.

    The fact that Marks and Spencer can make Mimi’s dress design in no way prevents Mimi from doing so. But Mimi has no right to co-opt the massive investment of capital, time and innovation that Mr Marks and Mr Spencer put in to make a great platform for selling dresses. If you like Danish Lego better than RipOff lego, then buy it. Nobody has a right to make a profit, you make a profit by being better,and continuing to be better, not by using the cops to prevent others from being better than you. This competitive system is the very beating heart of the system of free market capitalism that took us from grinding poverty to the abundant riches we all, in the west, enjoy today — yes, even the poorest among us.

    The very nature of property, almost all its attributes and utility, and (although I’m not a lawyer) most of the law around property comes from the fact that only one person can have it at a time. To apply that to things for which that is not true is perverse. Possession, they say, is nine tenths of the law, but when many people can possess the same thing then all that law is inapplicable.

    I strongly dislike the phrase “intellectual property” because it is a deliberate attempt to blur this obvious and evident distinction.

  • Ferox

    The author gives several reasons why Lego is superior to Lepin, and then suggests that in a world where Lepin blocks are sold, Lego blocks will have to be adulterated or else cease to exist …

    and my response is, why? If the author prefers Lego to Lepin he will presumably be willing to pay a premium for them. Does he suggest that nobody else will be willing to pay that premium?

    Why does the State need to break up equipment (or heads, for that matter) because a company in China is making toy blocks in a “forbidden” shape?

  • William O. B'Livion

    I think patents in particular are a horrendous violation of people’s right to self determination, and copyrights, while having a stronger case, are probably on net a bad thing too.

    Y’all make the same mistake about Intellectual Property that Socialists/Communists make about property and Capital.

    We don’t protect intellectual property because if we don’t people will steal it.

    We protect intellectual property because if we don’t fewer people will *develop* it.

    The left assumes that no matter how much we tax top wage earners they’ll keep on working high pressure, stressful, or icky jobs, because that’s what they all *do*.

    Too many libertarians assume that inventors and developers will just keep on going through the effort of developing an idea and trying to get funding to turn that idea into a product. And they assume that the banks and the VCs will continue to loan money or invest in the production of those ideas *even when they will be copied almost immediately*. It is far easier to reverse engineer most products than it is to develop them in the first place.

    Copyrights and Patents–at least for reasonable terms–create the *market* for ideas.

  • TomJ

    OK, to address the serious matter in this thread:

    Dear Americans,

    It’s not Legos. It’s never Legos. Just ask Lego, they’ll tell you.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “The very nature of property, almost all its attributes and utility, and (although I’m not a lawyer) most of the law around property comes from the fact that only one person can have it at a time. To apply that to things for which that is not true is perverse. Possession, they say, is nine tenths of the law, but when many people can possess the same thing then all that law is inapplicable.”

    By default, most information is free. As I’m sure most people here know, the exceptions arise from the problems of public goods. It costs a huge amount of effort, rare talent, and money to initially create the information, but virtually none to copy it once created. Books, music, inventions, medical drugs, software, … they’re all hugely beneficial to all mankind, but relatively few people are going to go to all the effort of creating them if they can’t get any of that investment back by selling the product. (People who are rich enough to forgo an income will sometimes donate their time altruistically for the pure pleasure, feelings of virtue, and/or fame it gives them. But a lot of people can’t afford to.)

    ‘Intellectual property’ is a compromise. By providing a (philosophically bogus) way to enable people to recoup the development costs of information, humanity gets the benefits of that information. We artificially graft it onto property law because trading property is our current best mechanism for allocating scarce economic resources. (Further down that list is funding it with taxes, of course.) It’s undoubtedly a bad way to do it, giving rise to all sorts of problems and perversities. The challenge, therefore, is to find an alternative, more libertarian way to fund development of expensive-to-create cheap-to-copy intellectual public goods. I have yet to see a better suggestion.

    “Couple years ago, someone decided they could use her designs on t-shirts, without compensating her.”

    There is an argument that we’d have more nice drawings of dogs if people didn’t do this, so if you wanted to take the property route I’d not blame you. Other ways to look at it are that she already got paid for that picture, sufficient to make the work worthwhile. And that you get the fame and altruistic pleasure in other people’s pleasure for free. My first thought on hearing the story was that it sounds like an opportunity for a deal. You wasn’t doing T-shirts previously, but there’s obviously a market for them. Contact the guy, offer other examples of your work, in exchange for advertising her dog-drawing business on other people’s T-shirts. Or go into the T-shirt business yourself, but mark yours ‘authorised by artist’. See if there are other producers (T-shirts, mugs, calendars, etc.) who might be interested in such artwork. Or on the other hand, that’s a lot of work to arrange it, and the return you can get may not make it worthwhile to you. In which case, you have your answer.

  • David H Bolton

    DRM is nothing to be proud of. How many people have lost their music or book collections because the service that handles the authentication was shut down. Amazon sells non-DRM’d music and Gog.com does the same for older games.

    Microsoft Ebook store closes

    US Prisoners lose music collection

    There have been others. DRM should be shunned when possible.

  • neonsnake

    My first thought on hearing the story was that it sounds like an opportunity for a deal

    Mine too, once I’d calmed down, as I am nothing if not a trader.

    The reality of the whole thing ended up being much less exciting than me striding, leather-clad, steely-eyed and wielding a half a snooker cue, into their facilities and demanding satisfaction.

    We contacted them, explained our position, and tried come to an arrangement. Their position (eventually, after some back and forth) was that she’d published the pictures on her website, so she would just have to accept that they are open to being copied and used, and therefore no compensation would be forthcoming.

    Once we got to that point, we then contacted some of her previous clients, and after some discussion, they spammed the reviews and the Facebook page with their displeasure that pictures of their dogs were being used without permission, either theirs or the artists. The problem swiftly went away, and she learned some valuable lessons – that her pictures are better than she thought, that she needed a swift lesson in copyright laws if she was going to continue seriously, and to watermark anything on her webpage (which of course was a forehead smacking lesson). Happy ending, all well within the bounds of free-market, and she does indeed now occasionally work with a different company that makes mugs and t-shirts.

    and copyrights, while having a stronger case, are probably on net a bad thing too.

    I’m intrigued as to why, Fraser?

    My opening argument would be, if the “product” of her labour is available to anyone, does “anyone” have the right to profit from it? I would say no, as it could be likened to stealing X hours from her. Asserting copyright gives us a legal framework in which to protect those hours.

    Nod to Agammamon and Rob Fisher up above re. violence/threat of violence; I’m in agreement that violence (at the least, forcibly depriving someone of their liberty, which inherently implies violence/force in its very wording) is the underpinning of any laws, including enforcement of contracts etc.

    I’m, in principle, in favour of the police as an institution for enforcing laws, for the mundane reason that any agreements between two people will in a sense be underpinned by threat of violence – if one person decides to break a contract, the outcome will be decided by whoever is more capable of doing (or convincingly threatening) violence to the other.

  • Julie near Chicago

    …if the “product” of her labour is available to anyone, does “anyone” have the right to profit from it? I would say no, as it could be likened to stealing X hours from her. Asserting copyright gives us a legal framework in which to protect those hours.

    Exactly.

    Also, good resolution. I know of at least one other case where the creator of the artwork has raised a stink about plagiarized copies of her work (this is all on the internet), and she’s posted the facts (that is, at least, her side of the story) and asked viewers to be careful not to purchase the pirated images. She’s gotten at least some positive feedback from the visitors to her site.

    Your wife does need to make sure to avoid any of the sites that host under a Creative Commons agreement, and to state plainly that her work is for sale only and that she retains all rights to the images; but I imagine she knows that now.

    The watermark is very good.

    I wish her increasing success. Sounds as if things are moving in a good direction.

  • Deny patents and you will have the alternative. The medical family who invented obstetric forceps seem to have kept them secret for a century – good for their patients, good for their fees, not so great for the many women who went through childbirth without them.

    Patents are not a horrendous violation of people’s right to self determination. Socialism is a horrendous violation of people’s right to self determination. Patents are a contract. One party provides full disclosure. The other party agrees a period in which the inventor has property right, before the disclosed information becomes free. There are lots of issues with patents – but graver ones in their absence.

  • neonsnake

    but I imagine she knows that now.

    We do *now*, but definitely didn’t at the time. This was when she was just starting to seriously explore the idea of making money from her twin passions of drawing and dogs, and hadn’t progressed much past selling her work on sites like fivrr, so we got caught out almost as soon as she created her own site. Lessons learned, and so on!

    I find the discussions re. intellectual property, freedom wants to be free etc absolutely fascinating. It appeals to both the old punk in me, and the old sci-fi fan – as the technology has improved so much, copying and reverse-engineering being so much easier than ever before, we’re struggling to conceptualise the rules.

    What if the ability to easily reverse-engineer Rearden Steel had existed at the time?

    If memory serves, the ability to keep its composition secret was key to the book? I’ve only listened to it once on audiobook, but wasn’t he eventually forced to give over the secret in order to protect Dagny?

    Hmm. There’s something in there linked to autonomy and privacy, I think.

  • llamas

    @Julie near Chicago, who wrote

    “For some people in some circumstances, yes it has. But there are quite a few of us who much preferred a store like Borders, where you could go and look at the merchandise, give interesting-looking books of which you were previously unaware a good browsing, see of what you thought sounded interesting really is.”

    How old is llamas? He’s so old, he used to shop at the Original Borders – Store number 1, on State Street in Ann Arbor. He’s an OB. With his Dear Old Dad, even.

    I’ve seen Borders through its whole life cycle, from one quirky bookstore in a college town, to a multi-national powerhouse, and back to nothing.

    And I don’t miss it a bit. I vastly-prefer Amazon.

    – along about the mid-90s, it became clear to me that Borders was stocking its shelves according to an ideological format. Books with a Leftward bias were piled to the rafters at the front of the store, regardless of their actual sales performance, while highly-popular and best-selling books with a Rightward bias were stocked in meagre numbers in far-flung corners of the store, and funnily-enough, often mis-shelved or (my personal favourite) shelved back-to-front.

    – the Borders feature, of sitting down in a comfy chair and perusing a book before buying, was fine in the paper-and-ink 80s, but is completely eclipsed in the Internet age. If you can’t figure out from the Interwebs, from your living-room couch, whether this is a book you want to buy, you’re never going to figure it out. Amazon’s “look inside’ feature alone does it for me 98% of the time.

    I have not been able to see any ideological bias at Amazon – yet. Maybe your experience is different And maybe this will yet change. But for right now, it seems Amazon doesn’t care what book you buy, as long as you buy it from them.

    And their convenience, combined with their game-changing technology of Kindle, just completely eclipses whatever advantages that Borders ever had. I don’t miss them, not for a minute.

    llater,

    llamas

  • William Newman

    William O’Blivion said “Y’all make the same mistake about Intellectual Property that Socialists/Communists make about property and Capital. We don’t protect intellectual property because if we don’t people will steal it. We protect intellectual property because if we don’t fewer people will *develop* it.”

    That’s essentially an empirical claim that too many people seem to take as a matter of faith. (Speaking of “same mistake that Socialists/Communists make”, think of the articles of faith that, e.g., free markets will not produce quality goods and services, all the way up to claims from the likes of Galbraith about the US auto industry not needing to worry about quality right about the time the Japanese were starting to eat their lunch with quality.)

    I have done a lot of work with computers, and I lived through the transition from (crudely speaking, glossing over some devils in the details) “software and algorithms not being patentable” to “software and algorithms being patentable”. If we took your claim about patent monopoly grants at face value, it should have been as easy to see as a transition between rent control and free prices, or price controlled gasoline and free prices. It was not, to me or to anyone I know of who has written about it.

    Also, FWIW, modern IP has at least three important strands — patents, copyrights, trademarks — that don’t have that much in common.

    Patents protect stuff that is spontaneously invented and reinvented at a pretty high base rate. Occasionally you find clever inventions that would be valuable if you put them in a time machine and sent them back forty years, that seems less common (at least among high profile inventions) than finding things that are invented independently by multiple people in the kind of twenty-or-so-year interval that patent systems commonly use for monopolies. Even really surprising innovative things are subject to this: consider public key cryptography, which would have been an exceedingly academic curiosity with no commercial use (maybe some marginal military use) even 10 years before it was publicly developed. It seems really unlikely to me that without the incentive of a twenty-year-or-so patent monopoly it wouldn’t have been developed until 1993: my guess would be late 1970s at the latest.

    Also, it can be hard to make the patent system cut reality at the joints w.r.t. some of those clever inventions that hung fire for forty years. As I understand it, the Wright Brothers were the first to clearly understand that a heavier-than-air flying machine really wants three-axis control, not just the smaller number of controls that were implemented by people accustomed to rudders and wagon steering tillers. That’s a big deal. Going back forty years ago it would have been mostly a curiosity because engines weren’t good enough, but I bet it would have ended up in a few gliders and/or submarines anyway. The Wright Brothers ended up with patent protection for wing warping, for which the patent system deserves a reasonable amount of credit, but really what you want to send back in time is more like the abstraction “three rudder controls: the ordinary left/right one for yaw, and then two more for pitch and for a cross-coupled pair of rudders we will call ailerons” rather than the excessively specifically concrete implementation of the idea as wing warping.

    Trademarks and similar stuff seem to fill an important need in practice, not just in theory — on a visit to the Philippines decades ago I noticed some restaurants whose names imitating well-established brands seemed clearly intended to be misleading, and various kinds of counterfeit goods crop up in US markets too — but they’ve grown to be much more onerous than necessary to fill that actual need. (Compare the growth and weirdness of customers’ ability to sue people who sell things to them: there is an underlying need, but today it’s hard to see under all the legal overgrowth.) A much narrower more explicit namespace system, with the kind of priorities that I associate with software and network designs, would give most of the practical value and eliminate most of the unnecessary uncertainty (e.g. about inherently fuzzy stuff like “trade dress”).

    Copyright largely covers stuff that in practice would never be spontaneously recreated. Giving Tolkien and his heirs a long-lasting property right in _The Hobbit_ is rather different than creating a twenty-year monopoly in one-click shopping. There’s still an inherently fuzzy boundary for where the plagiarism is, but there is a sufficiently large relatively uncontroversial area inside that boundary that it looks straightforward for real-world enforcement of real-world laws to create useful incentives with few perverse consequences. That doesn’t mean that real-world lawmakers and courts can’t screw things up (with overgrowth similar to what I noted in trademarks and customer torts) so that Disney can still hassle people drawing stylized animals three generations after some Disney version, but at least the problem doesn’t suffer from fundamentally hard questions of where the boundaries of the Wright Brothers’ innovation should be.

    (Where would one ideally draw the boundaries for the feedback amplifier, or radar, or antibiotics, or the fundamental semiconductor stuff that enables transistors? And what’s nonobvious, anyway? The kinds of questions that are litigated in plagiarism cases can easily become fuzzy and/or messy, but they don’t seem as hopelessly hard as those questions of suitable rights to technical innovations.)

    So in the OP question, I’d prefer a world in which people making knockoffs of Lego were free to do so, but it was very easy for customers to tell that it was a different brand. There would be some downside to innovation, but it’s not even clear to me that it would be a net loss. (I attended two meetings of the IETF, and noticed that the amount of openly-discussed friction from patent uncertainty, submarine patents, and other things patent-related was nonnegligible. It would not particularly surprise me if the positive incentives William O.’B. seeks were actually outweighed by the legal uncertainty of figuring out whether, e.g., some data compression technique would be blindsided by a patent issue later. Some here may also remember what a PITA it was for Linux for some years trying to clear the uncertainty about patent blindsiding.)

  • William Newman

    Afterthought: Imagine a world in which there was no central legal authority, but people were all fussily careful about honestly following contracts. In that world, it would be (sorta[*]) possible in principle to recreate something like copyright by only selling _The Hobbit_ under the contract that it would not be copied, but it would be impossible in principle to recreate patents (with their protection against competition even from independent reinvention). So arguments about intellectual property which gloss over distinctions between the major strands like patents and copyright tend to be glossing over distinctions that are important to libertarians.

    [*] It’s admittedly unlikely to work on the scale of protecting _The Hobbit_, of interest to hundreds of millions of people for going on a century, without it being a principle determining the handling of messy cases. E.g., in some kinds of shipwreck situations we allow property to be taken by the salvager, who naturally didn’t sign any contract with the published, and ordinary simple solutions to that problem that aren’t explicitly designed to protect limiting contracts like this seem unlikely to protect them merely by happy accident. I think it’s still a reasonable thought experiment, though: it seems likely to scale to at least newspapers published and plays performed in a metropolis of 1M people, which gives enough overlap with real-world copyright to be interesting.

  • Fraser Orr

    @William O. B’Livion
    We don’t protect intellectual property because if we don’t people will steal it.
    We protect intellectual property because if we don’t fewer people will *develop* it.

    Of course I understand this argument, after all, it is written right there in the US Constitution. The problem is that there isn’t any actual evidence to support it.

    If you only look at one part of the equation — make an invention more profitable people do more of it — then you would undoubtedly be right. What is missing from that analysis is — if ideas belong to people then other people can’t innovate on them — destroys this benefit. To give an example from the early days of patents, James Watt made a lot of money from his Steam Engine however, almost to the day when his patents expired, innovation in that space completely exploded. Pent up innovation held back behind a dam of patent law.

    BTW, the one place where patents have been studied in terms of the innovation is in the drug industry — often considered an indisputable case for patent law because of the high NRE/marginal ratio of that product. But those studies actually demonstrate the opposite, that patents stifle innovation. The link to that study in my favorites is broken so I’ll have to dig it up (though I have surely posted it in Samizdata before). But to offer an example, Schering-Plough developed a drug called Claritin that helps people with allergies. This drug was really pretty expensive compared to the rest, but did work well. However, almost to the day that their patent expired and the drug became generic, they released a new drug called Clarinex that is better. It is evident that they held up the release of this slightly better drug to maximize their monopoly timeframe. Had their been no patent then someone else may well have developed the innovation of Clarinex, and who knows what other new ideas are never developed because patents make it impossible. And this behavior is extremely common in the drug industry.

    You might well argue that Claritin would never have been developed in the first place. Perhaps you are right. But the point is that there are two sides to the impact patents have on innovation and to look at one side only is to confuse the issue. Shockingly there are amazingly few studies investigating the idea that patents are productive of innovation, and frankly, the ones that I have seen all fall down on the side of “on net patents decrease innovation”.

    Given the patents are an assault of the rights of people to do what they want with their minds and their property, the burden of proof falls squarely on the head of those who would stifle these rights.

    If you are interested in digging some more here is a sample of the studies I refer to. (BTW, I hate it when people say “my argument is in this one hundred page paper, go read that or else you are wrong”, so I have tried to make the case here, but I offer this link as supplemental reading if you are interested in digging in more on the subject.

    https://s3.amazonaws.com/real.stlouisfed.org/wp/2012/2012-035.pdf

    Simply speaking consider this — most innovation isn’t patented, most new ideas simple live or die on their merits. Joe Greengrocer tries a new way of advertising and wins or loses. I put up a different type of web sales page and it succeeds or doesn’t. You see my idea and modify and copy it and use it. And just as well. If every new idea was patented and licensed we would descend into a litigious anarchy. I am a programmer, and as part of my job I invent ten new ideas a week. Were I, and all like me, to patent them the world would literally grid to a halt.

    We have this nonsense idea that patents are to protect the little guy. Crazy uncle Joe invents an engine in his shed that runs of vodka and prayer, he gets a patent so that the big boys don’t steal it from him. But that is almost the exact opposite of what actually happens in the patent industry. In truth large companies have vast farms of lawyers who crank out thousands of patents a year, and these patents, almost at random, intersect with Crazy Uncle Joe, so they can crush him. And of course Crazy Uncle Joe can’t get a patent anyway, or not a good one, because a good patent on a complex piece of engineering probably costs $20,000 in legals fees for US only, four times that for a decent international patent. (Of course he can write one himself, but if you know anything about patents, a self written patent is effectively useless, since it can so easily be circumvented by sleazy lawyer tricks.)

    Patents do NOT protect the little guy. They protect massive corporations and they crush the little guy. Remember Google bought Motorola Mobile almost exclusively for its patents, and primarily to defend itself against Apple and Samsung and others. If you think you, with your one tiny patent written based on the “How to Write a Patent” book you got from the library, can go up against Google or Ford with the portfolio of 350,000 patents and 120 lawyers, and have a hope of winning — then I have a nice bridge to sell you.

    All of us eschew the patent troll, but the reality is that the patent troll is an entrepreneur in this space — if patents really are property then why exactly do we eschew them? All they are doing is actually bringing to light all the bazillions of patents that are hidden under piles of other ones. If patents are a good thing then why is that also not a good thing? The inventor gets paid, and the patent gets enforced.

    Good artists copy, great artists steal. It is the reality of all of history. I can only imagine how much worse off we would have been if the guy who invented the for loop or quicksort or the web page had tried to license their inventions.

    OK, I’ve rambled on enough.

  • Rob Fisher

    Ferox : “Does he suggest that nobody else will be willing to pay that premium?”

    Not nobody. Fewer people, probably. It has marginal effects. Often I find myself among a minority of consumers ignored by businesses. I’d pay a premium for Dr Pepper with real sugar but the makers don’t sell it any more. Fashions change.

    It’s not a completely lost cause. There is at least one company specialising in fizzy drinks with real sugar. Lego would take some replacing, though.

  • Ferox

    I’d pay a premium for Dr Pepper with real sugar but the makers don’t sell it any more.

    Yes, they do … at least where I live. I have a four-pack of bottled Dr. Pepper, made with cane sugar, in my refrigerator right now.

    And that marginal effect of reduced market share would occur if Lepin introduced any toy into the marketplace. It’s entirely plausible that, by providing a lower-priced entry point for new consumers to the plastic-interlocking-block toy market, Lepin could actually increase Lego sales in the long run. But whether they do or do not increase Lego sales, why shouldn’t the market be allowed to determine the outcome, rather than bullies with sledgehammers?

  • Ferox

    Cane sugar Dr Pepper

    Gotta love Wal-mart. The market wins again.

  • neonsnake

    Given the patents are an assault of the rights of people to do what they want with their minds and their property, the burden of proof falls squarely on the head of those who would stifle these rights.

    I think I understand this part of your argument, re. Patents.

    May I ask what your views on copyright are? You seemed earlier to ascribe similar views, though less strongly held, on copyright as to patents?

  • Gavin Longmuir

    William Newman: “Imagine a world in which there was no central legal authority, but people were all fussily careful about honestly following contracts.”

    So-called ‘International Law’ is a fair approximation to that — except that only some (not all) people are fussily careful. Many governments are glad to announce they are following signed international agreements — and are also quite happy to ignore the agreements they signed when it is convenient. There are central legal authorities, such as the UN’s International Court of Justice in the Hague — but there is no meaningful mechanism to enforce any agreement (contract). Just ask the Philippines about whether China has followed legal orders to relinquish control of certain islands in the South China Seas.

    Brings us back to one of those fundamental truths so distasteful to many people — contracts and laws ultimately depend on the existence of a credible enforcement mechanism, in the last resort heavily-armed stern men prepared to use violence. The only alternative to that I am aware of is the ‘social credit’ idea where people refuse to do deals with individuals who have a track record of not honoring contracts. Not that ‘social credit’ is very popular these days.

  • Fraser Orr

    @neonsnake
    May I ask what your views on copyright are? You seemed earlier to ascribe similar views, though less strongly held, on copyright as to patents?

    I’d like to, but I think I am going to pass for now. Maybe later in the discussion. The thing is that they are two very different things, and my experience discussing this issue is that if you don’t separate them the argument regarding patents tends to get diluted. (It is another reason I dislike the term “intellectual property” since it groups four completely different things under one umbrella.)

    So it is something I would be happy to discuss, but am disinclined to do so right now because I think the patent thing is vastly more important.

    Let me put it this way. The likelihood that I would produce a book called “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” that is identical to the one by Ms Rowling is negligible. The likelihood someone would come up with a windshield wiper that wipes intermittently is almost 100%. Inventions arise almost inevitably when they can be invented (that is when the precursors are available), so duplication is almost a certainty.

    Edison might have invented a lot of stuff, but if he didn’t exist all his inventions would have been invented within twenty years of his discovery. Do we really imagine that, without the patent system, we would all still be reading with candles?

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Fraser Orr: “Inventions arise almost inevitably when they can be invented.”

    Hmmm! One of the many historical puzzles is why the Industrial Revolution happened when it did, where it did. Why had the much more ancient civilizations in China or India not made the required inventions long before? The start of industrialization was the mechanization of manufacturing cloth — and human beings had been making cloth for thousands of years, just as human beings had been using metals for millenia and water-power for centuries.

    Some have argued that the Industrial Revolution started in a rainy little island off the coast of Europe because the legal system there had developed a patent system. I don’t know how convincing the argument is — but at least it is a hypothesis.

    However, I would not argue against the view that patents are like democracy — an initially good idea which we have subsequently managed to screw up beyond recognition.

  • Fraser Orr

    Gavin Longmuir
    One of the many historical puzzles is why the Industrial Revolution happened when it did, where it did.

    I’m no historian, but I think the causes of the industrial revolution are pretty obvious. The burgeoning of the capitalist system in that rainy island, the stability of its government, decentralized and empowering to the merchant class, the development of the necessary coal and iron technologies, the vast wealth from the colonies, the expansion of trade due to improved shipping, the massive improvements in agriculture over the past many years, and perhaps most importantly, the enlightenment, spurred itself by the printing press. That and probably many other precursors I didn’t think of all came together to make the invention of the steam engine.

    If he lived in a shaking country where the ruling classes kept the serfs in line, where there was no profit to be made and know library of written knowledge, had he not had access to industrial markets, or had the quality of materials he needed, Watt would never have been able to invent the steam engine. And without power to drive the looms that cloth would never have made Britain rich.

    Were it not for Waterloo and one hundred years of peace that revolution may well have been strangled in its childhood, and all its wealth consumed in wars rather than exponential innovation. And had Victoria not married an insignificant German it could well be that the public perception and government could well have stifled the whole thing. (Albert is greatly underrated in his contribution to history.)

    The industrial revolution is, in many ways, the very archetype of what I am talking about here. Now perhaps it could have happened one hundred years later, or maybe 100 years before (though unlikely given the government situation back then), but the late 1700s and early 1800s really were when all the threads aligned (if you will excuse the pun.) But it is clearly the culmination of all these developments. Some of these things might have happened in China or classical Rome, or even parts of Africa or South Central America, (Europe at the time was in too much turmoil to do much of anything.) But you need all the ducks lined up, not just some of them.

    Patents, IMHO slowed the whole thing down (refer to my earlier comment about the explosion of innovation following the expiration of Watt’s patents.)

  • Gavin Longmuir

    “I’m no historian, but I think the causes of the industrial revolution are pretty obvious.

    I am no historian either, and I used to think the same — until I delved into the topic some more, initially driven by an interest in the history of thermodynamics. The closer I looked, the fuzzier the picture got on the questions of Why There? Why Then? The need and the basic technologies had long been in existence before the Industrial Revolution.

    As you suggest, there were a whole lot of moving parts. While we tend to think of the Industrial Revolution being related to the development of the steam engine, many historians would peg the date at 1764, with Hargreaves’ invention of the Spinning Jenny, driven by water wheels. That is not long after the last British revolution, which suggests that stability of government may have been less than we currently imagine. And it was before the great expansion of the British Empire. It was before the French Revolution, which suggests that French government would have been just about as stable at the time — and France & Lombardy were probably technically more advanced than the UK at that point in history. The American colonies had attracted a large number of bright people from the UK and Europe, and was rich in natural resources and short of human resources. The value of finding a less labor-intensive cheaper way to make cloth had existed for centuries.

    I am not sure I buy the hypothesis that the patent system was a key factor in triggering the Industrial Revolution in the UK in the mid-18th Century — but the hypothesis that the existence of patents slowed things down seems equally tenuous. After all, a patent is merely a license to sue. And enforcing patents was much more difficult in those days of very slow travel, when a man could learn about an invention in the UK and then get on a ship to Europe or the Americas and implement it & further develop it there.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Gavin Longmuir
    I think going much further on the causes of the industrial revolution is a bit too far off on a tangent for me, though it is definitely an interesting subject. But I did want to comment on this:

    After all, a patent is merely a license to sue. And enforcing patents was much more difficult in those days

    I think if you do a little research you’ll find that James Watt did a LOT of suing (frequently successfully) with regards to his Steam Engine patents. It is also worth mentioning on this subject that the Wright Brothers also did a whole lot of suing after their invention of the powered aircraft, in fact, it consumed most of their time and energy. Which is a tragedy. Who knows how much those two remarkable men could have advanced aviation had they not spent all their time in courts and with lawyers.

  • Ferox

    Who else was going to create an Industrial Revolution? The West was having an Enlightenment, a celebration of reason and individual liberty. Meanwhile, China’s epistemological foundation was numerology. Central Asia was generally controlled by Islamists, and no longer the knowledge-loving kind. Japan was still closed to the world. Central and South America were plantations, more or less. Africa was still pre-literate.

    Really, where else could it plausibly have happened?

  • neonsnake

    Meanwhile, China’s epistemological foundation was numerology

    In no way does this detract from your overall point, but China’s epistemological foundation was unity. I’m generalising immensely, and doing it a great disservice, but whereas greek epistemology drew a divide, as I understand it, between the object and the observer, Chinese didn’t, and instead emphasised the continuity between object and observer. This translated in practice into a philosophy based more on what something “means”, rather than what it “was”.

    I believe that the reason they never created the industrial revolution was the continual influence of Confucian thought; pre-Confucianism, they were making enormous technological leaps forward (for the time period in question, at least!), tragically he (or more properly his followers and those who came after) largely won the “popular vote” against the Daoists, as it were, and China has been ever-more bureaucratic ever since.

    (I’ve just enormously simplified a very messy period of over 2,500 years, of course)

  • Some have argued that the Industrial Revolution started in a rainy little island off the coast of Europe because the legal system there had developed a patent system. I don’t know how convincing the argument is — but at least it is a hypothesis. (Gavin Longmuir, May 2, 2019 at 11:44 pm)

    The strong property rights of that society had a lot to do with it – and patents were part of that. The minimalism of the state – in large part, that private property was a good deal better protected from the state in that rainy island – was part of that. The combination attracted both investors and innovators from elsewhere to come to that island and endure the rain.

    there isn’t any actual evidence to support it. … To give an example from the early days of patents, James Watt made a lot of money from his Steam Engine however, almost to the day when his patents expired, innovation in that space completely exploded. Pent up innovation held back behind a dam of patent law. (Fraser Orr, May 2, 2019 at 3:58 pm)

    Is that evidence against intellectual property or for it? (Insofar as it is so – the rate of innovation was increasing at that time anyway, and some ideas people had in the latter years of Watts patent might be publicised after its end.) Watt’s patents put his inventions into the public domain (he had to, to patent them; anything he withheld was not covered by his patents). So what would have prevented other fully-informed people from coming up with of innovations based on them? If they believed in “From each according to his innovative ability, to each according to something else entirely.”, then they could have published their inventions gratis, though they presumably could not have patented them without acknowledging Watt’s patent or (openly) profited from them without paying royalties to Watt.

    Who knows how much those two remarkable men [the Wright Brothers] could have advanced aviation had they not spent all their time in courts and with lawyers.

    Or how little they could have advanced aviation if they’d known their ideas would have no protection from being stolen by others.

    That said, I have tedious experience of the world of defensive software patenting, the danger of patent trolls, courts without a clue about software, etc., so recognise the validity of points in your comments. I’ve also experienced the tedium of copyleft, viral licenses written by people who think their conventional area of software is how it all fits together, etc. – and having to assess how such licenses might be enforced by PC judges and (I repeat myself) judges without a clue – and so to second-guess what clients and customers might guess about that. The software-should-be-free people are also capable of making their work hard to innovate from.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Good artists copy, great artists steal.

    I thought great artists try and do things that are original.

  • William Newman

    It seems to me that the way that agricultural productivity went through the roof in times and places (sometimes called the Agricultural Revolution) that strongly correlated with the Industrial Revolution suggests that more general conditions and institutions (not specifically patents) were good enough to give something like an Industrial Revolution with or without patents. Or is there some way that patents were central to the Agricultural Revolution? Of course various famous later things like the cotton gin were patented, but I can’t think of any very large interaction between patents and agriculture before 1800, by which time very large improvements in agriculture had taken place. My foggy impression is that in that pre-1800 era, most of the improvement wasn’t in ingenious machines, but in other less-patentable things like drainage and irrigation, practices related to fertilization (like variants on crop rotation), better seeds, etc.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Niall Kilmartin
    The strong property rights of that society had a lot to do with it – and patents were part of that.

    I object to the use of the word “property” here. It assumes the conclusion. Given the very different nature of a patent on a steam engine and an actual steam engine (and specifically the attribute common to all property except patents that it cannot be owned simultaneously) one would surely, reasonably, expect completely different outcomes and consequences.

    Is that evidence against intellectual property or for it? (Insofar as it is so – the rate of innovation was increasing at that time anyway, and some ideas people had in the latter years of Watts patent might be publicised after its end.)

    So I think in the case of the steam engine the answer to that is pretty clear. There were many people who were busy making innovations to the steam engine at the time of Watt (including several who were investigation external condensers). So clearly Watt was simply “first to file.”

    Now you might well argue that the innovation would have been less busy were the promise of a patent not there and you might well be right (though I suspect not with regards to the steam engine.) But the primary point I am making is not that patents don’t incentize innovation, but that they also retard innovation. And consequently, given that they prevent people from doing things that they would otherwise have every right to do, given that it is a government granted, arbitrary monopoly, then there has to be extremely strong evidence that the former heavily outweighs the latter. And I do not see that evidence at all. In fact I think the evidence points to the opposite conclusion.

    It comes back to that point I made earlier. Inventions are not made because someone with an IQ of 300 comes up with an out of left field idea. Generally speaking inventions are minor evolutions of existing technologies. The invention proceeds as a natural consequence of where a technology is, and when the precursors are available. This isn’t to discount the work of inventors, their insight and entrepreneurship is needed, but had Watt not done what he had done someone else would almost certainly have done so very soon after. It was ripe for the picking.

    (BTW, there are some genius inventors who come up with completely out of left field things, but they are very rare indeed.)

    As to the issue of the “trade” — you get a monopoly in exchange for publishing the how of your idea — I think that belies reality. I have read dozens of patents as part of my work, and they are not at all enlightening. They are legal documents not technical documents. To imagine that anyone who knows something about the technology would be enlightened by a patent, or would have some kind of “ah ha!!!” moment from this seems to be to belie reality.

    Moreover, most inventions are, as I mentioned, minor tweaks on the technology that someone else would certainly come up with.

    Or how little they could have advanced aviation if they’d known their ideas would have no protection from being stolen by others.

    Again I think this does not acknowledge the fact that there was bustling innovation in this area, and that despite the fact that they could clearly see Orville and Wilbur were not getting their patents enforced, and their ideas were being ripped off all over the place. If the Wright brothers couldn’t get their ideas protected as a government monopoly why would the other innovators think theirs would? Rather then got on with the process of seeking profit by making better aircraft, and continually innovating to stay better than the competition.

    Patents are like laurels. If you have them you sit on them.

    That said, I have tedious experience of the world of defensive software patenting, the danger of patent trolls, courts without a clue about software, etc.

    Patents remind me of the excessive amounts of law we have. If the police looked at any of our lives closely enough they’d probably find something illegal we were doing because there are so damn many laws. So it is the fact that the police and courts are very, very inefficient that keeps that from happening. It is both a good thing, but also a bad thing since it means if you pop your head up above the barricades they can get you (witness recent events in Washington.)

    So many things are patented that the only reason the economy doesn’t grid to a halt under their weight is because the patent system is so horrendously inefficient. Getting a patent and enforcing a patent is an extremely costly proposition. Patent trolls are simple entrepreneurs who make the patent system more efficient and people hate them because the reveal the true nature of the system. The worst part is that for the small, truly innovative guy, if he sticks his head above the barricade those big companies can easily pick him off too. They have the money to make the system work for them whereas he does not.

    The patent system is supported on a common myth about its nature. Namely the Crazy Uncle Joe myth I set out earlier. But the truth is that it protects mega corporations who frankly don’t need protection, and endangers the little up and commers and particularly mid sized companies because they don’t have the defensive patent portfolios or massive legal teams to protect themselves.

    I think companies like Google and Apple have indeed been innovative. But they probably both have a quarter of a million to a third of a million patents in their portfolios. Are they really THAT innovative?

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Fraser Orr: “… the primary point I am making is not that patents don’t incentize innovation, but that they also retard innovation.”

    You point to the Wright brothers as a possible example of the postulated innovation-retarding effect of patents. Quick check — only 28 years elapsed between the Wright brothers first very short flight (1903) and the first non-stop Trans-Pacific flight (1931). The implication is that innovation in aviation proceeded rapidly, even in the presence of patents.

    If we look at innovation in rocket technology as a place where patents would presumably be less significant (since most development was government-funded for national reasons), only 25 years elapsed between the first German V2 (1944) and the Apollo 11 moon landing (1969). Surprisingly similar.

    Another 50 years have elapsed since the moon-landing, without much forward progress until recently — which implies there are worse things in this world for innovation than the patent system. The hypothesis that the existence of patents holds back innovation is interesting, but unproven.

    On the other hand, I would certainly buy the concept that modern patent law has got wildly out of hand and is now overall a negative — like much of the rest of modern law. There are stories that some companies are now eschewing patents altogether, and instead relying on speed of innovation & execution to reap their just rewards. The problem may not be with the concept of patents per se, but with excessive lawyering in the implementation of the concept.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Gavin Longmuir
    The implication is that innovation in aviation proceeded rapidly, even in the presence of patents.

    I don’t dispute that at all, but could it have proceeded MORE rapidly? (I’m not sure a comparison with rockets is all that helpful — launching a space rocket is vastly more complicated than flying an airplane.) However, the Wright brothers’ case is quite a complicated one, because it was often a case of the patents NOT being inforced despite their extreme efforts to do so. I think this quote, from the Wikipedia article of the Wright Brothers Patent War is pretty pertinent, and seems to indicate that the patent war DID retard the growth of aviation. Without patents this war would not have taken place.

    The patent war stalled development of the U.S. aviation industry. (This claim has been disputed in research.). As a consequence, airplane development in the United States fell so far behind Europe that in World War I American pilots were forced to fly European combat aircraft, instead. After the war began, the U.S. Government pressured the aviation industry to form an organization to share patents.

    I’m not a historian, and can’t really pass a judgement on this. But again the point is not to say that patents don’t incentivize, they plainly do. But that the also hinder. And, with something as brutal as patents — which means men with guns taking your money and your liberty — the advocates had better have an extremely strong case to make to say that those men with guns are truly justified.

    There are a few articles about this on drug development. I had them as links but the links are broken. I’ll try to dig them up because they are pretty interesting for those who want to read more on this.

  • Paul Marks

    What is the crime here?

    Is it that people might confuse “lego” with “lepin”? If that is the crime then tell the Chinese company to come up with a different name.

    Surely any patent on the idea of plastic bricks fitting together (if there ever was one) must have expired years ago.

    There is also hypocrisy here – after all the “Lego Movie” (pushed by the company) was strongly socialist – denouncing the rich, private property, and big business.

    They can not have it both ways – or perhaps they can, like the People’s Republic of China itself – which preaches socialism and practices capitalism.

  • neonsnake

    This is the crime.

    They’re not just making bricks of the same size and general shape as Lego.

    A team, in Lego, have put hours of their life into working out how to create the model. Someone else has designed the packaging to market it, putting in the hours to do so. Someone has worked out the commercials of how much to charge, and so on, so forth.

    Lepin have done none of that, they’ve just taken the benefit of all that work. They’ve copied the design, the number and types of bricks, the packaging to sell the product, and all the work that went into it.

    They are profiting off the work, the hours of the life, of others.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    But neonsnake — someone in Lepin with a great sense of humor renamed the package “Star Weiners”. (I guess that is how it would be pronounced in Chinese). Anyone who has seen the recent movies might prefer the Lepin version. 😛

  • Fraser Orr

    @neonsnake
    This is the crime.

    FWIW this is one type of intellectual “property” I think is good (that along with the fourth category of “trade secrets” that, for some bizarre reason is grouped under the same umbrella.) So on this point I think it is a crime or at least a tort.

    Not because somehow Lego owns this design (that is bleeding into the copyright issue) but rather it is more a matter of fraud, in the area of trademarks and trade dress etc. Here this box is designed to look like the Lego box in such a way as to deceive a customer into thinking they are getting Lego, with all the concomitant benefits of buying Lego. So I definitely object to the fraud.

    As a general rule, trademark law is also over-expansive, but it is much more reasonable than other forms of intellectual “property”.

  • bobby b

    “On the other hand, I would certainly buy the concept that modern patent law has got wildly out of hand and is now overall a negative — like much of the rest of modern law.”

    The discussion of the concept of patent ought not be intermixed with the discussion of the present state of patent law and procedure. The USPTO, to name one such office in the world, is broken.

  • Fraser Orr

    @bobby b
    The discussion of the concept of patent ought not be intermixed with the discussion of the present state of patent law and procedure.

    About other types of law I think that would be true. One does not suggest that murder should be legal because the Chicago PD successfully prosecute less that 25% of them. But patents are different. The patent monopolies are granted not of right but because, according to the constitution that doing so promotes the useful arts and sciences. It is by its very nature a matter of pragmatism. You have a right to your life while you are alive and no murderer should take it from you. Almost nobody thinks of patents that way. Nobody thinks that an inventor has eternal title to their idea. They are granted a monopoly for a limited time because, by some judgement to do so benefits society on net (even though it is a combination of pros and cons.) This again is a purely pragmatic argument, and so pragmatism, that is to say *how it actually comes out in the implementation* is vitally important.

    If the raison d’être is pragmatism not morality, then it has to be demonstrated that that pragmatism is justified.

  • neonsnake

    So on this point I think it is a crime or at least a tort.

    I think that probably settles my earlier curiousity on copyright as well, Fraser – appreciated.

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