ON 28 JANUARY 1958, a tiny company from a tiny country applied for a patent over a tiny plastic brick. The Lego brick, that tiny block of plastic, has been produced in the tens of billions by the Lego factories since that time. It has been the basis of business school case studies, academic colloquia, and any number of breathless encomia. And it has also been stepped on by countless parents.
The humble brick is, however, much more than just a branded, colored, molded and heat-treated piece of polymer—it is the foundation of a system of control and ownership based on global intellectual property laws. In the early life of the brick, Lego had complete control over its system; but as the patents on the Lego brick began to expire in the mid-1970s, the company had to change its approach. In time it would understand that the thing that mattered was no longer patent but trademark law; and no longer the brick, but the brand.
Beyond this story of corporate evolution, Lego also helps us understand a remarkable legal transformation, that of the global spread of intellectual property laws in the postwar era. The Lego brick has been produced since the mid-1950s, and in its basic form is largely unchanged to this day. In that time, the global intellectual property system has changed from a narrow set of laws that accounted for a tiny percentage of global trade, to one of the foundations of contemporary capitalism. The Lego company and its bricks have been involved in every part ofthat transformation.
The standard creation story of Lego and the brick begins in 1916 with a master carpenter, Ole Kirk Christiansen, who bought a woodworking shop in rural Billund, Denmark. Over time he came to specialize in wooden toys; and so, in 1934, he named his company “Lego,” a contraction of the Danish leg godt, or “play well.” For more than a decade Lego produced nothing but wooden toys, such as carved wooden cars, trucks, and pull-along ducks.
Lego's first brick-based toy was a knockoff of an earlier System from Kiddicraft, an English toy company created by child psychologist Hilary Page. Lego's 1949 version was made, like Kiddicraft's, from cellulose acetate.