A $70,000 shipment of Lego-like building block toys that's being held by German customs authorities is tearing the Lego enthusiast community apart, bringing to a boil a long simmering controversy among fans about the historic company's dominance of the space, competition, and the quality of its products.
It all started on March 4 when Thorsten Klahold, owner of Johnny’s World, a YouTube devoted to reviewing plastic brick sets, uploaded a video announcing that his shipment of sets made by Qman, a Chinese building block toy competitor, had been blocked at German customs over concerns they were in violation of Lego’s intellectual property. Later, a video and set of documents uploaded by Klahold revealed that customs was holding sets containing Qman minifigures at Lego’s request, as the company considers them to be in violation of its own trademarked-protected minifigure.
In the past, Klahold has promoted and sold alternative plastic bricks to Lego, which, according to him and other members of the community, are hard to find in the mostly Lego-dominated shelves of toy shops and department stores.
The resulting controversy has bitterly divided the brick enthusiast community. While some accuse Lego of using its team of corporate lawyers to target smaller vendors as a means of choking out competition and maintaining its iron grip on the European market, others have accused Klahold’s channel of effectively acting as a cult of personality inflating scandals for views and misrepresenting the company’s legitimate attempts to protect its intellectual property.
Even a “Bricks4theKids” GoFundMe setup by Klahold to order plastic brick sets from non-Lego brands and deliver them to children living in orphanages, for example, has received both praise and accusations of invoking a “save the children” campaign for personal gain in the comment sections of block enthusiast websites.
Lukas Kurth helps run StoneWars, an independent Lego fan-site that produces news, reviews, and even a weekly podcast dedicated to new Lego products. He and fellow writer Jens Herwig have been closely following the situation with Klahold, and have even written a 9,000-word summary of the situation.
“At the moment things are quite heated,” Kurth told Motherboard over Skype. “You have two extremes, and then the people in the middle who are trying to see both sides. While of course there is a major power imbalance here between Klahold and Lego, I think we have to keep in mind here that it’s quite normal for a company to defend their IP [intellectual property]. It doesn’t make Lego sympathetic in this case, but I don’t think it makes them the devil either.”
Part of the problem, Kurth said, comes from the fact that over the years numerous companies mostly based in China have produced counterfeit Lego sets. Qman (under its previous name Enlighten) itself originally produced so-called ‘Lego clones’ of older products, but now produces its own original sets.
Klahold did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Motherboard. In a statement to Motherboard, Lego defended its decision to block the Qman shipment to Klahold.
“Anyone who buys a LEGO® product receives a product of perfect quality that meets the strictest safety standards,” a spokesperson wrote. “We therefore monitor plagiarism manufacturers around the world and focus on ensuring that our trademarks, patents and intellectual property are not infringed. For this reason, like many global brands, we also work with customs in numerous countries to take action against the trade in plagiarism and possible legal violations.”
This isn’t the first time that Lego has found itself in a public spat with YouTubers. In January, Thomas Panke, owner of the Held der Steine (“Hero of the Bricks”) YouTube channel, received a legal notice from Lego instructing him to remove videos where he referred to plastic bricks from other brands as “Legos.”
Panke has been a vocal critic of Lego products even before the legal notice. Just last week, for example, he released a video review of Lego’s Unicorn DJ Beatbox set in which he (sarcastically) warns of “massive damage to the development of your child.” While he did remove the videos that Lego signalled out, his subsequent highly critical recounts of the ordeal led to a PR disaster for the company, with Panke gaining hundreds of thousands of new subscribers and his videos attracting millions of views.
Part of the anger comes from a perceived deterioration of the quality of Lego’s products. As Lego says, buying an official product from the company should guarantee "perfect quality" a customer can't get from copycat products, but not all Lego fans agree that is the case. A particular sticking point for the brick enthusiasts seems to be color consistency. Because some bricks are produced in factories in China and others in factories elsewhere, their hues sometimes don’t match.
“From my point of view some products from Lego are currently deteriorating, for example the whole City series, which becomes more and more expensive, while the sets are getting smaller,” Guido Gössler, who helps run Just Bricks—a blog focusing on news and reviews of alternative plastic bricks—wrote to Motherboard in an email. “The brick quality from the alternative brands is continuously increasing and sometimes Lego doesn’t even have the better brick quality.”
While the differences in opinion between “Lego-only fans,” as Gössler put it, and alternative brick fans probably won’t be going away anytime soon, enthusiasts like him and Kurth hope that the community can return to civil discussion.
“Hopefully we can cool down a bit in the coming months or even years,” Kurth said. “I hope that this whole community, be it Lego fans, or fans of other retailers, brands, or bricks, can come together peacefully.”