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Mashing Up Your Building Blocks: A Legal Gray Area That Shouldn't Be

By Adam Savage

The ability to combine your Legos and K'Nex should be a no-brainer, but the companies that own those brands may say otherwise.

This is great. Want to join your Legos to your K'nex, and then to your Lincoln logs or Tinker toys? The growing ubiquity of 3d printing (and its shrinking cost) has yielded its greatest contribution to date. The rosetta stone of open-ended building systems: The Free Universal Construction Kit. It's so clever, so simple, and if you can find me someone that has a serious problem with it, I want to have a talk with them.

I kid. Of course, I expect the owners of the very toy companies represented here (and their lawyers) to have a significant problem with this. I expect the guys behind this project, the FAT (Free Art and Technology) to receive a cease and desist letter in 3...2...1. And I then expect someone sensible like the EFF to stand up in court for them. Finally, I then plan to read about it with rapt fascination until the case is settled 18 months from now to nobody's benefit.

But let's start a serious discussion about it.

Source: Free Art and Technology Lab

Seriously, how does this HARM the brands involved? If anything, I think it helps them. If you're a Lego fanatic who wouldn't dream of purchasing K'nex, this system might just open your minds to new ways of mechanically engineering that Rube Goldberg machine you've been thinking about all this time. In a perfect world, each of these companies would send the guys at FAT a big fat thank-you letter for their efforts. But I doubt they will. I wish they would but I doubt it.

I get it, each company has a form factor that it considers MUST be protected (save for the expired patent on the Lego studs). They also have quality control issues that they'll complain about: if the companies themselves aren't manufacturing the parts for their ecosystem, third party parts could damage their brand identity (think about how shitty third party Legos really are). I understand where they're coming from from a business and brand standpoint.

But let's look at it from a public benefit standpoint: the simple fact is, left to their own devices, these companies would NEVER build something like the Free Universal Construction Kit on their own. It just wouldn't come into being. And if I was a kid, I would KILL for this. For anyone who plays with open-ended building systems (a key gateway drug for the making of things in general--and Lego was how I got MY start), this is a serious and awesome augmentation. We need to be training a nation of scientists and engineers (which are in sharp decline) that this is exactly the kind of thing that helps engender maker culture.

Source: Free Art and Technology Lab

In speech, our legal system very intelligently grants protection to parody as transformative, and beneficial to a proper and balanced civil discourse. The fact is, in these days when a replicator is not just something making tea for Picard on Star Trek, but a growing reality, we need a similar legal protection for this exact kind of transformative augmentation in the physical world.

Editor's note: You can download 3D design files for the Free Universal Construction Kit here, and I recommend you print out these awesome poster explaining the Universal Construction Kit's pieces (PDF).