Free 3D-Printable Kit To Connect Different Toy Construction Sets Released -- But Partially Blocked Due To Patents

from the think-of-the-IP-lawyers dept

I've been hearing about this project for a few months now, and I'm excited to see that it's finally been released. F.A.T. Lab and Sy-Lab have officially released their Free Universal Construction Kit, a set of 3D printer instructions for creating nearly 80 awesome "adapter" bricks that let you connect ten (sort of) popular children's construction playsets:


Included are connectors between the following sets: Lego, Duplo, Fischertechnik, Gears! Gears! Gears!, K’Nex, Krinkles (Bristle Blocks), Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, Zome, and Zoob. There's also a giant universal adapter block. I'll admit I'm a bit disappointed that Megabloks didn't make the cut, as my son tends to go back and forth between those and Duplos. If you want them, they're available at Thingverse, though you'll obviously need a 3D printer to actually do anything with them. Here are some of the photos they've put up of the kit in action:






The general idea is really cool. Kids don't care if Lego and Tinkertoys come from the same company. They want them to work together nicely. That's part of the fun of tinkering. But, of course, the toy companies want to "control" the market and pretend that only their toys exist. Acknowledging anyone else's toys is seen as a mistake -- even though it actually adds value to the toys by letting you do more with them. In the past we've seen Lego, in particular, be particularly aggressive in trying to lock out competitors.

Of course, that raises the big question: what about intellectual property law with this offering? The non-commercial nature of it likely protects them against trademark issues, though it does seem silly that actually offering such useful connector blocks for sale might put you in legal hot water. Either way, I know the guys who put this together spent a ridiculous amount of time exploring the different legal issues involved here, and have put up a detailed discussion on them -- with a clear recognition that even after being as careful as possible to not infringe on anyone's rights, they still have to note:
Some may express concern that the Free Universal Construction Kit infringes such corporate prerogatives as copyright, design right, trade dress, trademarks or patents of the supported toy systems. We encourage those eager to enforce these rights to please think of the children — and we assert that the home printing of the Free Universal Construction Kit constitutes protected fair use.
Furthermore, they have a pretty full discussion on how the use of IP here is not about protecting rights at all, but about attempting to gain market dominance:

Today’s manufacturers have little or no intrinsic motivation to make their products compatible with anyone else’s. Indeed—despite obvious benefits to users everywhere—the implementation of cross-brand interoperability can be nearly impossible, given the tangled restrictions of patents, design rights, and trademarks involved in doing so. So we stepped up. The Free Universal Construction Kit is the VLC of children’s playsets.

As we can see from the example above, interoperability is a question of power and market dominance. Most market leaders regard interoperability as an anti-competitive nuisance, a regulatory check on their ambition, or a concession to the whining of lesser players. Quite simply, interoperability is the request of the disenfranchised. And which end-user, in so many ways, is less enfranchised than a preliterate child?

The simple fact is that no toy company would ever make the Free Universal Construction Kit. Instead, each construction toy wants (and indeed, pretends) to be your only playset. Within this worldview, the other manufacturers’ construction sets are just so many elephants in the room, competing for your attention on the shelves of Toys-R-Us. No longer. The Free Universal Construction Kit presents what no manufacturer could: a remedy providing extensible, post-facto syntactic interoperability for construction toys. Let the fun begin!

Of course, there's still the issue of patents... and there the folks behind this project also did something interesting. In that list of supported toys are two -- Zoob and Zome -- that are technically still under patent protection. To deal with those two, the kit actually does not include connectors to either of those toys. Instead, both have a pending date, to be released on the day those patents expire. In other words, progress and the ability to interoperate with those toys must wait until the monopolies expire. Progress is being hindered, not promoted here.

We've discussed in the past how 3D printing is an upcoming legal battle, as many of the issues that previously arose solely the digital realm will be crossing over into the physical. We've also noted how The Pirate Bay has already stepped up with plans to offer a place to share 3D printable plans -- and, indeed, the folks behind this project note that it will soon be up on that site, when it's ready.

The more you look at this, the more it makes you wonder what else simply isn't being done today due to over-aggressive desire for control via IP laws, rather than recognition that making a product more valuable and useful is actually a good thing.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    Hulser (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:06am

    FUCK?

    We encourage those eager to enforce these rights to please think of the children — and we assert that the home printing of the Free Universal Construction Kit constitutes protected fair use.

    Maybe they should have thought of the children before giving their product a name with an acronym of FUCK.

     

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  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:29am

    Off-Topic: As of a couple years ago, MegaBlocks are directly compatible with Lego. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to dodge lugnet before they lynch me for being an infidel*.

    *No, not really.

     

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  3.  
    icon
    Suja (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:40am

    Re: FUCK?

    LOL!! Nice catch.

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:41am

    WTF!?

    What the Free Universal Construction Kit where they thinking!?

     

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  5.  
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    WDS (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:43am

    "and we assert that the home printing of the Free Universal Construction Kit constitutes protected fair use."

    And of course every home has a 3D printer sitting in the office.

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    Prisoner 201, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:48am

    Re:

    I will get one as soon as the price drops low enough. Who wouldn't want one?

     

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  7.  
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    Sneeje (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:48am

    Re:

    Actually that's a great example why it is still possible to compete without IP protection. My son has received both lego and megablocks sets as gifts. He LOVED the megablock sets (Halo, etc.) until he tried to put them together. They don't fit properly and sometimes pieces won't even stay connected.

    Now, if given the choice, even if he likes the theme for the megablocks set, he will pass on them.

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:49am

    A lot of printer technology is blocked in the U.S. thanks to patents. Most companies don't sell printers that can print labels onto CD's in the U.S., some deliberately remove the unit that allows the printer to do that to units sold in the U.S., though consumers can separately purchase the unit and attach it on.

     

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  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:51am

    "Acknowledging anyone else's toys is seen as a mistake"

    Ignore their toys and it's considered 'anti-consumer'

    Acknowledge their toy and it's considered 'collusion'

    They can either look bad or get sued by the government

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:53am

    Re:

    toys *

     

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  11.  
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    Beta (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:56am

    extruded plastic Singularity

    "I'll admit I'm a bit disappointed that Megabloks didn't make the cut... Zoob and Zome [are] technically still under patent protection. To deal with those two, the kit actually does not include connectors to either of those toys. Instead, both have a pending date, to be released on the day those patents expire."

    I don't know how big the 3D printing community is, but I have to wonder how long it will take for these connectors to appear "in the wild".

    Heck, how long until plans for replicas of Lego bricks appear, or the entirety of Duplo is pulled in. Imagine not having to buy a 500-piece set to get the three rare pieces that constitute the entire creative novelty of the latest kit. How long until actual hybrids appear, not just adaptors. An online ecology of evolving toy construction sets.

    I gotta go lie down.

     

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  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:56am

    "please think of the children"

    Am I the only one getting massive sense of irony here?

     

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  13.  
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    TtfnJohn (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 7:56am

    Re:

    I was thinking that myself though I can't help but wonder just how quickly the pricing on these devices will drop in price over the next few years particularly as more end user/home kits become available.

    That said, along with Mike, I wonder what the IP extremists and companies will do when these kits become more popular and available and the price of 3D printers decline.

    Just think of all the "piracy" that's going to occur!!!

     

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  14.  
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    Sneeje (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 8:02am

    Re: Re:

    I think there is a heee-youge gap between "acknowledging" their toys and "collusion". Megablocks and lego (mentioned above) are interchangeable, but no one accuses them of that. Tivo boxes work with many cable companies, etc.

    Even if those examples are poor, the point still stands--there is much opportunity for competing companies to make products that work together w/o collusion.

    For collusion to exist, there would need to be a major outcome such as keeping prices high, forcing other players out of the market or etc.

     

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  15.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 8:09am

    Re: Re:

    yup, just like big media whining about amateur bloggers stealing eyeballs.. it's just as easy to spot the garbage online. I am my own filter thank you very much

    the expression about the cream rising to the crop didn't come from nowhere

     

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  16.  
    identicon
    fb39ca4, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 8:09am

    The reason there are no megabloks adapters is that it and legos are already mechanically compatible.

     

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  17.  
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    Matt T. (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 8:28am

    Re: Re:

    I remember being younger and searching yard sales for cheap, large amounts of legos to build with, and it was always disappointing to see these boxes over half-filled with mega bloks. Most kids hate the way they feel, and in some ways I think their interoperability made them look more like a cheap lego knockoff than a real competitor.

     

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  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 8:28am

    Re: Re: Re:

    My post was satire.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
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    Torg (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 8:46am

    For most of my childhood, my dream was to be able to connect my Robotix to my Knex. It's good to see that we're halfway there.

     

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  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 9:09am

    Re:

    Technically if you got Mini-Megabloks and Micro-Megabloks then you could connect Duplo with Legos

     

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  21.  
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    KelvinZevallos (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 9:25am

    Re: Re:

    "That said, along with Mike, I wonder what the IP extremists and companies will do when these kits become more popular and available and the price of 3D printers decline."

    Compare the 3D-printer to a rampant pedophile... or start locking it out from the markets due to possible children hazard (See Kinder Surprise).

     

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  22.  
    icon
    Josef Anvil (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 9:34am

    Evolution of Santa

    I think this article sent the trolls into shock. They are all sitting around trying to think of how to explain this to their children. They have to educate those young IP maximalists early.

    "Honey, we can't get you the F.U.C.K. set, because Santa told his Elves that they are not allowed to make it."

     

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  23.  
    identicon
    [citation needed or GTFO], Mar 20th, 2012 @ 9:40am

    The future...

    If this takes off, in a couple of decades, F.U.C.K. will mean something else besides "Fornicating Under Carnal Knowledge."

    Kids will go to each other and ask their childhood playmates "Does anyone wanna F.U.C.K.?"

     

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  24.  
    identicon
    Rekrul, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 10:23am

    The more you look at this, the more it makes you wonder what else simply isn't being done today due to over-aggressive desire for control via IP laws, rather than recognition that making a product more valuable and useful is actually a good thing.

    Internet-only cable TV, sales (not rental) of movies in a digital format that will play on any device, being able to access a studio's entire catalog of movies/shows, on-demand viewing of all TV shows, being able to connect any two entertainment devices together, playing movie discs from any country, being able to make backup copies of legally purchased media...

     

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  25.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 10:35am

    Re: FUCK?

    Well due to the NC-part it isnt really Free but calling it Semifree Universal Construction Kit isnt working for them either

     

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  26.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 10:44am

    Re:

    Acknowledge their toy and it's considered 'collusion'


    I thought that "collusion" was an agreement between two or more parties to limit competition through lawbreaking, price-fixing, fraud, and the like.

    Simply acknowledging a competitor and offering interoperability with it would not seem to be an example of collusion.

     

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  27.  
    identicon
    Alex Hagen, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 10:45am

    Kind of useless...

    Yeah, you can buy a thousand dollar 3D printer, print one of these parts with relatively expensive special plastic, and end up making a really expensive piece with poor tolerances...or you can just glue two pieces together from your existing sets.

     

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  28.  
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    Vincent Clement (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 11:13am

    The Universal Adapter Brick is the best. It has all of them in one. Something straight out of Sid's room in Toy Story.

     

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  29.  
    icon
    Torg (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 11:37am

    Re: Evolution of Santa

    Best not to mention Santa at all. He's violated just about every company's intellectual property with his illegal offshore toymaking operation.

     

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  30.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 2:51pm

    Re: Kind of useless...

    Or you could build a 3D printer for less than $500 that has reasonable tolerances, and use reasonably inexpensive plastic source material, have a lot of fun, make custom pieces and all kinds of things that have nothing to do with these toys.

     

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  31.  
    identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 3:24pm

    Re: Not Free!

    >Well due to the NC-part it isnt really Free...

    Exactly! Why did they do such a stupid thing?

     

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  32.  
    icon
    JMT (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 3:33pm

    Re:

    I think it's awesome that the phrase is actually being used as a genuinely worthwhile request. Makes a nice change.

     

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  33.  
    icon
    davidnetline140 (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 6:41pm

    Re:

    This will eventually be a game changer. Imagine the day that we all have the ability to manufacture parts of the fly from the confines of our own homes? No need to for social interaction and waiting in lines...oh how I want that to be now.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 20th, 2012 @ 6:54pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Our mistake, the legitimate trolls in these comment sections make it difficult to tell parody from stupidity.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  

    Non-free, I'll pass

    The problem is that the printable kit is itself nonfree with its noncommercial restriction. I may almost bet the restriction was imposed to prevent the big businesses it's crossing over to raze the project with their sue cannons, but still I consider both sides to be in the same category.

     

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  36.  
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    Watchit (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 9:35pm

    Re: FUCK?

    Wow! This must be one of the best acronym screw up of all time, whether it was intentional or not! :D

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37.  
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    Watchit (profile), Mar 20th, 2012 @ 9:35pm

    Childhood dream

    Man I wish I had these when I was a kid :[

     

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  38.  

    Re: Re: FUCK?

    In a way they did think about the children, now the acronym is SUCK.

     

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  39.  
    identicon
    John Nagle, Mar 21st, 2012 @ 12:42pm

    What "legal battle"?

    The US doesn't permit copyright on functional parts. That's why there's a third party auto parts industry.

     

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  40.  
    identicon
    John Nagle, Mar 21st, 2012 @ 12:48pm

    What "legal battle"?

    The US doesn't permit copyright on functional parts. That's why there's a third party auto parts industry. Trademark doesn't cover functional parts, either. Nor does trade dress. Patents can, but the parts here are rather basic and probably unpatentable. Decorative items are another matter. But these aren't decorative items.

    It's no "counterfeiting" if you don't copy the logo.

    Someone may threaten litigation, but they're not going to win. There have been zero lawsuits in this area, as far as I can tell.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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