Attack of the Clones
Best-Lock, Lepin, and Mega Bloks are among LEGO‘s many clone brick competitors around the world. Ever since LEGO’s resurgence into prime toy markets in the 80’s, and later in the 90’s with the Star Wars license, many other companies have tried to get in on the toy money with their own interlocking blocks.
Perhaps the recent Chinese police raid in April on Lepin headquarters in Shenzhen reached the local news. In that particular case, Lepin was copying blueprints, molds, and packaging almost identically and selling their faux LEGO in eastern markets. For many years this has been ignored and tolerated, but recent legal and political pressure has led to a more severe crackdown in broader markets.
Mega Blocks is sold in the United States and other locations, but provides their own original and licensed sets dissimilar from LEGO’s. Though LEGO opened legal action to protect trademarks, Mega Blocks seems to have been relatively unaffected.
A Brief Brick History
LEGO will tell you that their founder Ole Kirk Christiansen started selling a precursor to the LEGO brick we know today in 1949 under the name Automatic Binding Brick. What they don’t say is that something like the LEGO brick existed before 1949. A man named Hilary Page invented a plastic interlocking brick, called the Self-Locking Building Brick, and patented it in 1947.
Fast forward 50 years. Another man, Torsten Geller, founded Best-Lock in 1997. Originally Geller was a LEGO purist and disdained LEGO knock-offs. However, as he learned the true history of the brick and that LEGO (in his opinion) “stole” the idea from Page, he became angry and founded Best-Lock.
Using legal loopholes and un-enforced copyrights, the newly founded Best-Lock began manufacturing bricks of their own, complete with minifigures. He is even quoted as saying that he “did the figures because I want to piss [LEGO] off” in an article on Courant.com about a 2012 legal battle involving Best-Lock and LEGO.
Clearly there are personal feelings involved in the trademark wars. LEGO, though they muddy the history, copied and improved what would become the LEGO brick. They eventually bought the intellectual property of Kiddicraft, Page’s company, bringing both bricks into the same trademark family. Despite this, Geller’s Best-Lock and others have challenged LEGO on their trademarks, winning some battles and losing others.
What this practically means is that other bricks and secondary markets exist outside of LEGO. This includes manufacturers, resellers, and customizers. Some use official LEGO bricks, some produce their own, or use one of the many similar bricks that exist.
In any case, LEGO now seems to hold the trademark for the minifigure, and some elements, but the basic brick is outside of their control. (As I understand it. The legalities are confusing for an amateur such as myself.)
Through the Stargate
I consider myself a LEGO purist, though that hasn’t always been the case. My first bricks were not official LEGO bricks. They were from a company named Tyco. The bricks were compatible with LEGO, but not the same. They had the same colors and similar brick types. However, once I started to receive LEGO bricks, the Tyco bricks were put away for good.
Curiosity got the better of me a few years ago when I purchased a set from an online retailer. The set was a Stargate from the popular Stargate SG-1 TV series of the early 2000’s. The manufacturer? Best-Lock. At the time I was building my own creation of a Stargate in LEGO, and was having trouble getting the gate itself, a large rotating circle, quite right. In my frustration, I was considering alternatives. Enter Best-Lock.
The set itself was relatively inexpensive, and cost less overall than a LEGO set of similar piece count and license. LEGO will not produce any sets having anything to do with real-world military themes. Since the Stargate program is (fictionally) part of the US Air Force, that means no LEGO Stargates.
I found the Best-Lock pieces to be of a lighter weight, and less satisfying plastic than the ABS that LEGO uses for their bricks. They did not clutch tightly, and often came apart while building and in the little bit of play time I allowed myself. The minifigures were odd, with protruding noses and recessed eyes, when compared to an official LEGO minifigure. Overall, I found the set unpleasant and not for me. I discarded it soon after.
And What I Found
Best-Lock has updated their minifigure these days, and it now more closely resembles LEGO’s own. Best-Lock’s product line comprises many licensees. They have farm equipment, JEEP, airlines, military vehicles, and still hold the license for the Stargate TV series, among others.
I find this secondary market interesting. LEGO can be expensive, and resources are precious for a low income family. Part of the reason I grew up with Tyco instead of LEGO was my family could not afford name brand toys when I was young. With my own money, I prefer the superior quality and commitment to reliability that LEGO provides. I like the greater clutch power and that all my bricks are the same whenever I buy a set. But I understand that is a luxury that many cannot afford.
As a LEGO reseller through eBay, and a purchaser of used LEGO there, I have encountered faux LEGO before. I have never unintentionally purchased a non-LEGO brick, but a few times I came close. This I find unacceptable. Part of Lepin’s trouble is the near-exact duplication of LEGO. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference, especially in an online auction with unclear pictures or description. Usually the lower than normal price alerts me that what I am about to purchase is not exactly what I want. The buyer must beware.
Whether you buy Best-Lock, Mega Bloks, LEGO, or someone else is ultimately up to you. For me, it is the fun and the enjoyment that is the point. By all means, purchase what you can afford and what will bring the most joy to you. Really, any of these bricks will do the job if building is the point, and it should be!
If you want official Stargate sets, buy Best-Lock. If you want official Halo or Pokemon, buy Mega Bloks Mega Construx. If you want Star Wars or Harry Potter sets, buy LEGO. Or, you could always build your own with whatever you have! After all, that is what I always say: “I look forward to what we can build together“. I don’t say with what! So get out there and get building, and please, share in the comments!