Lego Tells Political Artist To Hit The Bricks, Refusing To Sell Him Legos

from the paging-dr.-streisand dept

LEGOs. Yes, the basic building block of our youthful imagination also holds a rather ugly over-protective side, in which it uses whatever tool happens to be nearest by to smash up any use of its products that it doesn’t fully endorse. Which, when you think about it, is really weird for a company that makes products that are essentially all about imaginative uses. Children building their own colorful castle? Awesome! But an adult using LEGOs to create political art? Oh, no, no, no.

Yes, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has, in the past, used LEGOs to create portraits that have been featured in national art galleries but was recently refused an order his studio placed for a large amount of LEGO blocks, with the company reportedly stating that its building blocks can’t be used for political speech.

In an Instagram post on Friday evening, the artist said Lego had refused the bulk order in September, quoting the company as saying it “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works”. The artist’s accusation follows news this week that British firm Merlin Entertainments will open a Legoland park in Shanghai in conjunction with a Chinese partner. That announcement, timed to coincide with Chinese president Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK, seems to have prompted the artist’s Instagram post.

Now, while it’s tempting to write this off as a company bending over backwards to commit a small amount of censorship in favor of a larger business opportunity, it’s worth noting that LEGO has done this sort of thing before. Maia Weinstock had put in a request for LEGO to make blocks specifically designed to allow for works that would celebrate female Supreme Court justices, which the company refused to fulfill. And, hey, if LEGO wants to refuse orders to specific people, it certainly can. But it can’t actually control how its blocks are used for the purposes of expression. Not in any nation with competent free speech rights, that is. Were Weiwei to try to crowdsource the blocks he needs, for instance, LEGO has little hope of silencing whatever he comes up with.

Which is what makes all of this so silly, because now a well-known political artist’s endeavor has been Streisanded into the news and the public consciousness. An art project that might have once garnered much more limited attention instead is being featured in national news stories. Whatever hope LEGO had of minimizing the political impact of Weiwei’s art has been dashed by its own actions. So…way to go?

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Companies: lego

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Comments on “Lego Tells Political Artist To Hit The Bricks, Refusing To Sell Him Legos”

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Mark Wing (user link) says:

Let’s all take a moment to thank Barbara Streisand for being enough of a dipshit to where this effect needed a name in the first place.

So, thank you Barbara (and Mike), and thank you Lego, for giving me the determination to make only immature and/or disturbing creations with your product from this day forward. And I hereby apologize in advance to my future grand kids.

Oblate (profile) says:

Plenty of other options for him...

Unless I missed something in the article, it seems like his lego pieces were flat (2D) and he’s not using the 3D capabilities of legos. There’s other brands of building blocks he could use, but what would be really cool is to see him switch to Jelly Belly* beans- do a Google image search on Jelly Belly art, you’ll be amazed.

(*I don’t work for Jelly Belly, and I’ve not been paid by them, except for free samples from their factory tour**.)

(**Go on their factory tour if you get a chance. There’s free samples!)

Oblate (profile) says:

Re: Re: Plenty of other options for him...

I’ve taken my kids through the Wisconsin warehouse tour once almost every year for about the last 7 years, and they haven’t updated much. But the kids still enjoy it as much every time. There’s plans to close the Wisconsin warehouse, but apparently no timeline. Maybe the eventual closing of the site is why they haven’t been updating it, or maybe since kids still enjoy it why bother changing it? But I agree that repeat visits by adults may be disappointing.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Were Weiwei to try to crowdsource the blocks he needs…”

This was right at the bottom of the Guardian page linked to in the article.

“Chinese artist receives offers on social media to crowdsource enough bricks for him to complete an artwork about free speech for an exhibition in Australia.”

Anonymous Coward says:

I can’t understand why he can’t obtain his needs through various third parties. One portrait does not a Legoland make. The company is privately held and based in Denmark, so I would imagine they reserve the right to say take a hike. I guess I can add these guys to Sony, and Apple as companies whose products I avoid. Hell, none of these deep pockets need my pittance anyway. I reserve the right too. I usually used Lincoln Logs as a kid anyway.

Chris Rhodes (profile) says:

Purpose Served

Whatever hope LEGO had of minimizing the political impact of Weiwei’s art has been dashed by its own actions.

I don’t think they wanted to “minimize the political impact” of his work; I think the point was to keep the public image of the company politically neutral. If he gets them from a third party, he gets the make his art, and they have it on record that it wasn’t officially sanctioned by the company. Win-win.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Purpose Served

Ford has decided to not allow you to buy a car, because you might drink and drive.
GM has decided to not allow you to buy a car because you might drive it to a political protest.
McDonalds has refused to allow you to buy coffee, because it might give you the energy to write a congressperson.

They sort of went the opposite of neutral, they refused to fill an order because they wanted to avoid a political controversy (that might have screwed up their business plans).

If they wanted to be neutral, they should have just made the sale. Allowing corporations to keep control over what end users who purchase their products do is reserved for the copyright cartels only.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Purpose Served

That’s not what happened and you know it.
Lego rightfully refused to sell him directly because they want to remain political neutrals as they should, not get involved in his public FUD, GM and Ford wouldn’t sell you cars directly even you wanted to, they would tell you to go find a dealer or get lost, stop trying to make this some kind of bullshit hashtag funding campaign for this guy, he’s not worth it.

Chris Rhodes (profile) says:

Re: Re: Purpose Served

Mike points out that this is not a one off: They decline to fill orders where the goal is overtly and publicly political, independent of content. Your examples don’t really make sense, in that context.

“Allowing corporations to keep control over what end users who purchase their products do”

They aren’t “controlling” what he does with his blocks, and they haven’t tried to. They simply refused to sell to him.

If they had sent him a ridiculous legal threat telling him how he could or couldn’t use blocks he had purchased, you’d have a point, but they didn’t.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Purpose Served

Ford has decided to not allow you to buy a car, because you might drink and drive.
GM has decided to not allow you to buy a car because you might drive it to a political protest.
McDonalds has refused to allow you to buy coffee, because it might give you the energy to write a congressperson…

Considering that people are taking secondary and even tertiary liability seriously*, I’d be chilled too on selling things to people who I even had the slightest suspicion. It shouldn’t be this way, but I think there is a genuine trend for what I guess could be described as a vertical monopoly on blame.

“Zippy spilled a pop on me. I should not only be able to sue Zippy for damages to my hot new kicks, but the local Gas n’ Go for selling Zippy the pop, the bottler for making it!”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Purpose Served

And in light of this situation, my point is a tangent, but I think a worthy one.

LEGO should have discretion on who and how they sell to people. While in this case it’s on simple PR grounds (setting a neutral public image), we’re also getting in to a weird space where there have been genuine legal consequences involving overwrought laws, and clueless judges.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Purpose Served

“I think the point was to keep the public image of the company politically neutral.”

If that’s the point, it completely failed. “Politically neutral” would mean that they would sell him the bricks regardless of what type of speech he was going to engage in with them.

By refusing to sell them to him, they have staked out a political stance. Therefore, they have publicly declared that they are not politically neutral.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ai Weiwei could have gotten all the Lego's he wanted...

all he had to do was use a reseller, he would have gotten a cheaper deal too, but he learned long ago how gullible American and Europeans are, and how thirsty they are to be ‘on the right side of politics’ and to ‘do the right thing’ so he’s using this fake incident he manufactured to sell his ‘rebel artist fighting the establishment’ image to make money. Go eat some more donuts Ai, and laugh at just how gullible and easy marks those Americans throwing money at you are.

PaulT (profile) says:

Meh. Censorship hasn’t actually occurred here, since there’s many other ways to get the bricks. LEGO aren’t looking great here, but they had a choice between being seen by the Chinese as supporting a dissident and losing a major contract, or taking their money. Unsurprisingly, they chose the money.

Had real censorship occurred this might be a big issue, but all that’s happened is that an artist had to go to a second choice supplier for his art materials. Hardly the worst either party on the other side have been responsible for.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Assuming everything in your in post is accurate (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), censorship is still taking place here. If someone in the Chinese government contacted Lego and said “If you give this guy Legos we’ll ban you from doing business in our country.”, then China is abusing it’s economic position in order to censor political speech. (Concerning, though not exactly breaking news.) On the other hand, Lego might be self-censoring out of fear of Chinese reprisal, but without a direct threat. I’d argue Lego holds a bit more of the blame in that case, though obviously China is at the heart of the problem.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“China is abusing it’s economic position in order to censor political speech”

Except no political speech is being censored. The bricks are still available, and the speech will take place unless Weiwei changes his mind. One supplier has simply chosen not to do business with one customer to avoid upsetting another, as is pretty standard with most business deals.

I can see where you’re coming from, but literally nothing has been censored by any definition I can think of. If there were no other supplies of the bricks he could obtain elsewhere, maybe, but not in this case.

Anonymous Coward says:


Well, what can I say… You guys took Weiwei’s Instagram summary of what happened and thought that was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Please remember that Weiwei’s purpose is to get media attention. Apparently “stretching the truth” is just one of his methods.

LEGO has long had a global policy: It will not participate in, support, donate to or otherwise endorse projects that carry a political agenda.

Weiwei applied for support by ordering the bricks through a special discount channel. This is considered “support” by LEGO, and therefore they refused the order via this channel.

I guess Weiwei will just have to purchase his bricks the good old fasioned way: without the discount.

But I guess he won’t, because he already got more media attention out of this shitstorm than he will ever get from an actual project.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Wrong!


But, strangely, you not only fail to refute anything in the Instagram post or the article, but you expect everyone to take your opinion as truth and reject Techdirt’s because you say so. Weiwei being a self-promoter changes not a single word in the article.

Years of this rubbish, and you still can’t grasp the basics.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Wrong!

You are apparently not capable of making the distinction between:
“LEGO will not sell bricks to Weiwei (at all)”
= what the Instagram post and this article state

“LEGO will not support the project by giving Weiwei a discount (but he can buy them through regular channels)”
= what LEGO and my comment state

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Wrong!

Well, apart from the fact that you failed to specify that the channels were from LEGO, you also failed to specify that’s what you meant. “Other channels” can easily mean other companies, general retailers, the used market, etc. Unless you can cite where LEGO have said they’re happy to supply him at full price, your wording changes nothing.

Plus, on top of your inability to communicate in an adult fashion, I know you’re a liar and you provided no verifiable facts. So, no, I won’t take your untrustworthy claims over and above the reasonable assumption in the article just because you command it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Wrong!

Read this:

At least these guys reached out to LEGO for a comment.

And PaulT, please refrain from personal attacks. It adds nothing to the discussion nor to your credibility (on the contrary).

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Wrong!

“Read this”

See? A citation wasn’t hard. Now, while I do find it amusing that you’re citing a blog that can’t even spell the names of the sources it’s using correctly (albeit relevant to the discussion – bravo for once!), you finally decided to insert facts between your whining.

“At least these guys reached out to LEGO for a comment.”

They’re a LEGO blog with personal sources at the company. This is a tech blog. Take a random guess why it was easier for one to do this and not so easy for others. I’m sure many of the other mainstream sources mentioned also reached out, but I’m not seeing anything other than a random blog who managed to get an answer. That’s interesting to me.

Regardless, Techdirt do have a tendency to retract, correct, apologise,etc. when new information is available that changes their original points. Your rambling whine above didn’t provide that, but your decision to provide a citation for the very unclearly laid out point you tried to make may well do so.

“And PaulT, please refrain from personal attacks”

You’ve earned plenty, sadly. My calling you a liar was not an attack, merely an observation earned from reading many of your attempts to attack this site. Well done for not having earned it on this occasion, so consider it retracted. If you want to earn some credibility for yourself, this is how to do it.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Wrong!

Yet, here you are obsessing over me long after I’d left work and stopped looking this site for the day.

“Winner of Techdirts “Nastiest Fucker of the Year award”.

Nothing nice to say? Don’t let that stop you.”

You can’t keep cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy out of a single post, can you? After swearing at me and calling me names, you then tell people not to do those things. Classic.

“Attack the idea? Nah, fuck that, attack the man.”

I addressed your ideas while noting you were a liar. I even thanked you for providing a citation.

But, your thin skin can’t bear that your constant trolling and lying is being called out on, time for a toddler tantrum! Swear and rant about being a victim, screw the actual discussion! What a waste of oxygen.

Ben says:

This misses some nuance

I think you’re missing some important nuance to this story:

* LEGO refused to sell the bricks directly to the artist at wholesale prices in bulk. In other words, LEGO doesn’t want to be seen as sponsoring any political speech in any way by offering steep discounts.
* The artist is free to buy bricks at retail prices just like the rest of us. Of course LEGO can’t prevent them using it any way they like. You’re statement to that effect is a little a silly.

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