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.

Filed Under: 3d printing, adapters, bristle blocks, construction sets, copyrights, duplo, fischertechnik, gears, innovation, krinkles, lego, lincoln logs, patents, playsets, tinkertoys, toys, trademarks, universal construction kit, zome, zoob

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 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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