Danish toymaker Lego cannot register a picture of one of its iconic building bricks as a trademark, because the Lego product cannot be distinguished from other manufacturers’ bricks, the European Union’s upper court ruled Tuesday.
On April Fool’s Day 1996, Lego registered a picture of a red building brick – a rectangular shape with two rows of studs on top – as an EU trademark. But the EU’s patents office later overturned the registration after another toy brick-maker, Mega Brands, complained.
After Lego repeatedly appealed, the European Court of Justice ruled that “the Lego brick is not registrable as an (EU) trade mark”, because “clearly the Lego brick’s specific features were adopted to perform a utilitarian function, and not for identification purposes”.
Under EU rules, practically any word or image can be registered as a trademark as long as it is “capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings”.
But pictures of technical gadgets whose function is defined by their shape – such as a hexagonal nut or a figure-8-shaped connector – cannot be trademarked, because that would allow their inventors to wield a monopoly even after the product’s patent has expired.
And in the case of Lego, “The most important element of the sign composed of the Lego brick is the two rows of studs on the upper surface of that brick, which are necessary to obtain the intended technical result … that is to say, the assembly of toy bricks”, the ECJ ruled.
Under normal circumstances, ECJ rulings cannot be appealed. Tuesday’s decision is therefore expected to end Lego’s attempt to register the picture of its brick as a trademark.