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The Almighty Buck

Lego and the IP Conundrum 179

Packetknife writes: "Business 2.0 has an article on Lego and the development and business issues surrounding the Mindstorms product line. The article concentrates on intellectual property issues and the role of hackers in the development of Mindstorms. The hook to the OSS movement is obvious in the article." Interesting piece about Lego trying not to bite the hand that feeds it, even though the temptation is strong.
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Lego and the IP Conundrum

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  • a soft redirection (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:04PM (#2270919)
    Texas Instruments allowed assembly hacking on their TI line, notably -85 and higher. . .then in perhaps a wise move, in the updated line, allowed for an easier time to implement one's own assembly, editor and all. Why shouldn't Lego, the best 'toys' in my opinion, do the same?
    • And Texas Instruments position in the computer world is what, now? Going from Cosby-endorsed home computers and thousands of Speak and Spells in children's hands to selling a few small lines of embedded processors.
      • Blockquoth the poster:

        And Texas Instruments position in the computer world is what, now?

        I don't have market share numbers and have no idea where to look. But in the particular market referenced (i.e., scientific/graphical calculators), TI is a major player still... in no small part due to their tolerance of hacks into their operating systems.
      • >>Texas Instruments allowed assembly hacking on their TI line....
        >And Texas Instruments position in the computer world is what, now?

        What's your point?

        Long ago, in a galaxy far far away, TI made a home computer. So did everyone else. That was before the IBM PC, before the dark times.

        fast forward to today....

        Everything is now PC compatible. MS with their new improved IIS-Star can crash the entire Internet.

        So what? There were lots of other personal computer designs around before the IBM PC came out.

        How is the early history of personal computers in any way related to what TI does with their successful line of calculators?

        very few animals were harmed in the making of this post.
    • Another take on this: Apple sued companies (particularly Franklin Computer Corp.) that violated it's patents. IBM *encouraged* people to hack and clone their BIOS.

      Guess which type of computer became the most successfuL? :-)

      • by yerricde ( 125198 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @03:17PM (#2271166) Homepage Journal

        Apple sued companies (particularly Franklin Computer Corp.) that violated it's patents. IBM *encouraged* people to hack and clone their BIOS.

        No, the lawsuits were not about patents but about copyrights. The Apple II ROM didn't have a syscall interface like PC BIOS did; A2 syscalls were merely jsr instructions to the entry point in ROM of the function. Because this restricted the possible length of each function's binary code, it was almost impossible to make a 100% Apple compatible ROM without making it byte-identical to Apple's.

        But the real reason Apple sued is because their contract with Microsoft required them to do so. Microsoft owned the copyright on the Basic interpreter in Apple II Plus and later computers [].

        Guess which type of computer became the most successful?

        The one with the more extensible API. IBM designed its BIOS syscalls around a realization that it would eventually have to change the internal structure of its BIOS in later revisions to the PC (e.g. XT and AT).

        However, the LEGO case isn't about patents or copyrights; it's about trademarks, as the name "LegOS" gives a false appearance of a LEGO product. LEGO doesn't want to tech-support third-party software that could potentially damage expensive sensors and motors.

    • Great Example! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by SMN ( 33356 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @04:33PM (#2271289)
      This AC makes a very good analogy that I, as someone closely tied to it, should expand upon.

      TI's first graphing calculators, the TI-85 and TI-82, were "hacked" so that assembly-language programs could be written and access the calculator hardware directly. The article here seems to imply that LegOS and other independent "hacks" could somehow damage LEGO Mindstorms' reputation if they don't function properly -- with the TI calculators, it also took very little effort to install these programs (mostly games), and they crashed the calculator _very_ often.

      So what did TI do? Rather than trying to patch up the holes that allowed ASM programs to be run, they added full ASM program support to their next calculators, the TI-86 and TI-83. And they even documented the systems to encourage ASM programming -- and I know many, many people who bought calculators only to play games in class. This earned them a bundle.

      Now, years later, this is paying off even more. I, a 17-year-old "hacker" (at least under the definition given in the article), and several others have been hired to write programs for them, and although I can't give details I'm certain that these will also make them a good deal more money.

      So what's the moral of the story? As another poster suggested, LEGO should _embrace_ these "hackers" and hire them to improve their products. It seems that whatever "danger" these independent projects have on LEGO's reputation is greatly exaggerated -- people who understand enough to send their RCX a new OS are smart enough that they won't be blaming LEGO for any flaws in it (and as far as I know, there really aren't any flaws in LegOS). Almost no harm done, but great benefits for LEGO.

      Even Businessweek's article says that these have helped sell tens of thousands more units. That is not in doubt. This is a case of corporate types fearing anything they don't understand, and instantly suing it. Instead they should consider the situation here and realize how much they can benefit from it!

  • by _N0EL ( 245472 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:05PM (#2270923) Homepage
    Mindstorms executives felt a strong kinship with the hackers. "We didn't want to get flamed and be the bad guy," says Mike Dooley, who was senior product marketing manager of Mindstorms before leaving Lego earlier this year. "And you don't want to get into a fight with these people. They'll shut down your website."

    On the one hand there's a "strong kinship" and on the other there's an assumption that hackers will immediately decide to turn on you by doing something extreme. Which is the feeling that Lego truly has about "hackers" who tinker with their products? Besides, shutting down a website implies a totally different type of hacking from that which involves modifying products. So once again, two different kinds of hacker get equated.

    • by chrisserwin ( 448761 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:45PM (#2271001)
      I think that both attitudes can exist... fear and kenship. Fundamentally, the Mindstorm folks understand the difference between "buzz" and "hype". Hype is self-promotion or the blind regurgitation thereof; Buzz is promotion that others freely give.

      The hacker community was providing buzz... that's what sells 100,000 units when you had forecasted 12,000.

      "They'll shut down your website," sounds a little toung-and-cheek to me. The real fear is more subtle - piss these people off and you kill the buzz.
    • On the one hand there's a "strong kinship" and on the other there's an assumption that hackers will immediately decide to turn on you by doing something extreme.

      You know what? They're dead on. If you look at the history of Slashdot you'll see many cases of this kind of behavior. One day, the geeks love that gives them something they like. The next day, they're up in arms over some political issue and people are posting DoS scripts in the comments. It has happened before right here, and the Legos people are right to be concerned.

    • The thing is, he's lumping all hackers together. While Mindstorms may appeal to a wide array of hacker types, among others, not all hackers would react the same to provocation by Lego. The thing about such situations is that it only takes one hacker to shut down their website and get all hackers painted with the same brush.

  • by JanneM ( 7445 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:08PM (#2270929) Homepage
    LegOS _is_ rather close to LEGO, after all, and it is emphatically in the same market. So, I'd think that a name change on the part of Noga would not be amiss.

    Other than that, I hope that LEGO leaves well alone (giving an official 'stamp of approval' to high quality projects are a good idea, though). As the article emphasizes several times, LEGOs business is selling kits, not software. Having a prominent wanring that messing with the OS will void your warranty should be enough.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      It's the same thing with Killustrator awhile back. While I'm not a fan of IP laws, trademarks are necessary and Lego should protect thier brand name.

      But I hope he backs down, it would suck if they had to sue him.
      • Hell, they could just change the name to PlasticOS, or BlockOS.

      • Lego should have protected it 30 months ago, when they told Wired they though it was great that people were doing this. Since then, legOS has enabled thousands of serious programmers (including several large universities) to buy and use Mindstorms when they wouldn't have put down their money otherwise. It's a serious slap in the face of people who have made a lot of money for Lego and are now getting stabbed in the back.
    • by AndroidCat ( 229562 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @03:54PM (#2271227) Homepage
      Yep, they certainly do have a point. While I think that hacking their hardware/software is great (and I bet LEGO thinks so too), there's no point in poking their lawyers with a stick. IP and trademark are protect it or lose it type stuff.

      There are any number of ex-trademarks that were lost because the company didn't defend the trademark (or botched it): Aspirin, linolium, yo-yo, thermos, cellophane, milk of magnesia, lanolin, celluloid, dry ice, escalator, shredded wheat and zipper. (Source: "Made in America", Bill Bryson) While these names are now public domain, some company once created and owned them. Those companies lost big when their trademark became generic.

      I'm sure that the LEGO people would rather shoot their own feet off than have to sue someone, but you have to defend a trademark or lose it! They can't afford to lose the LEGO trademark, otherwise anyone can call their product LEGO.

      I hope Noga will understand (NogaOS?), and LEGO could give him a few bulk cases of LEGO. And then everyone could go have a cream soda with ice cream float.

      LEGO are White Hat Good Guys, Noga is White Hat Good Guy. This problem is stupid, and is just attracting the suits and lawyers.

      Now if only LEGO would make steel blocks so that I could build the perfect BattleBot!
  • Buy Them Out! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by corky6921 ( 240602 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:11PM (#2270934) Homepage
    I don't understand why this should go to court. Someone took his own time and spent it to make Lego's hardware better. If Lego simply bought the modification for x dollars, wouldn't the problem be solved?

    Look at game mods, for example. Game companies let people create modifications for their games and then they BUY the best ones, repackage them, test them, and ship them, therefore accepting responsibility for tech support. This would solve Lego's problem of "If it -- or any other third-party OS -- becomes widely used, Lego would have trouble vouching for the reliability of its product and providing tech support."

    Okay, next. Lego offered the hackers a job. Why offer them a salary when you can simply pay them so much for the alternative OS and use it as the basis for your next robots, or offer it as a free, supported, "advanced users only" download?

    The only problem I see with the above is what happens when the hackers continue to improve the OS. Do you keep paying them, or not? That would be something Lego would have to work out with them. However, I still see no reason for them to drag these people into court. These people believed in something and made it better -- they weren't trying to undercut Lego, and they are not selling alternative hardware (which Lego freely admits is its core business.) So what's the problem here?
    • Re:Buy Them Out! (Score:2, Insightful)

      by theancient1 ( 134434 )
      That's exactly what the article said -- they're not planning to take everyone to court. Improving the product is good. However, when you start using someone else's trademarks in your product name (LEGOS), other issues come into play. Might there be consumer confusion over the name of the software? Does it dilute the LEGO brand name? What if other people decide to take it a step further and create products with names like "LEGO OS?"
    • Buying the guy out would probably also save on legal costs.
    • The article doesn't specify this, but the software would be hard to 'buy out' since it is MPL and hosted on sourceforge.
  • It's only software (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sting3r ( 519844 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:14PM (#2270940) Homepage
    Lego obviously has no financial incentive to prosecute customers who write or utilize alternative software on their devices. Why? Because it doesn't hurt their bottom line at all. These devices aren't like some [] devices [] which are sold at a loss and rely on subscription or advertising revenue to survive. Lego has made their profit by the time their device is sold, and so it doesn't matter to them whether the toy is used, thrown away, hacked, or left on the shelf. Hacking the toys costs Lego nothing.

    The only legitimate argument in the article was that Lego might get a few support calls from users of alternative software. The way to deal with this is the same exact way that Tivo deals with upgrades, AMD deals with overclocking, and Maxtor deals with tinkerers: void the warranty if the user tampers with the equipment and something breaks. Simple.


    • It's probably not the software, but the name Noga chose. More than likely, he thought of LegOS when this was his own little tinkering project and didn't think it would take off and become a visible issue. Now he probably doesn't want to change the name and cause confusion the community of people working on LegOS, but Lego doesn't want users to incorrectly think LegOS is a product that Lego controls and supports.
      • this raises an issue... ok i'm allowed to call my dog LegOS, but when my dog is becoming popular and recognized by more and more people i might be sued?

        good thing no one names his son Microsoft.
        • My niece and nephew's dog is named Lego, but nobody has tried (to the best of my knowledge) to snap a Lego block on him, only to have this not work, then call customer support at Lego to complain and request a new set of Lego blocks.

          However, imagine this scenerio... a parent and child download LegOS because it has "Lego" in it, so it must be a Lego product. Okay, there's warnings all over the place about LegOS not being affiliated or supported by Lego or whatever, but we know how useful this is. So the child now has a LegOS powered Mindstorm and it does something Lego-unapproved, dangerous, pornographic, becomes inoperable, or whatever (pick a Simpsons episode like the one where the talking Krusty doll tries to kill Homer or the Funby toy that destroys products made by its manufacture's competitors). Now Lego has a big problem on their hands.

          Maybe it's not just popularity, but popularity combined with a functionality reasonably relevant to the product.

          Along with your dog named LegOS issue, I wonder if the reason the dog becomes popular is part of the equation. If you name the dog LegOS and it becomes popular because it saves a drowning family, there's probably no lawsuit issue. But if LegOS mauls someone... hmmmm. I wonder if something like this has ever happened, like someone has named a racehorse after a product, and the horse is a pathetic on the racetrack, so the company tells the owner to change the horse's name or risk a lawsuit?
          • by el_nino ( 4271 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @03:10PM (#2271149) Homepage Journal
            There are 42 categories of trademarks, and unauthorize use of a trademark is only infringing if the use falls in the same category. Lego is probably registered as a Class 28: Games and playthings; gymnastic and sporting articles not included in other classes; decorations for christmas trees.

            This means I can sell a beer called Lego without them having a legal leg to stand on in a lawsuit unless they have also registered Lego as a Class 32 trademark (Beers; mineral and aerated waters and other non-alcoholic drinks; fruit drinks and fruit juices; syrups and other preparations for making beverages.).

            Since LegOS is made for use with Lego's Mindstorm toys, it's pretty clear that it's a class 28 product. If your dog is called LegOS, you're probably pretty safe unless you start selling him as a toy or christmas decoration.
  • by GuruHal ( 229087 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:29PM (#2270963)
    Lego has always held close the belief that toys should be educational. Shouldn't this be another facet of that same idea? Noga and the people who "hack" mindstorms are simply taking it to a new level. Besides is they can make something works as well or better, why not encourage that level of developement by hiring them on as programmers/consultants for your products. Noga clearly has excellent ideas for mindstorm and with his insight, there may be a whole new area of developement to tap into, something Lego may not have considered.
  • by ChaoticCoyote ( 195677 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:30PM (#2270967) Homepage

    ...since their response appears to be measured and reasonable. This is one case where intellectual property is serving its intended purpose: protecting someone's investment in time and money from being dilluted or confused by another product.

    Lego has spent many, many years building a reputation associated with their name. And that reputation is well-reserved; truly we can all appreciate how Lego brought MITs research into the hobbiest market. That was a gutsy move on Lego's part, and they should be rewarded for that courage.

    Markus Noga is a bright guy, but (as the article states), he crossed the line by naming his product LegOS. He's being a silly ass by claiming he named it after himself, and that the name has nothing to do with "Lego". He's tweaking the nose of the company, even though they provided the basis for his work. There would be no LegOS without Mindstorms...

    Lego isn't going after all Mindstorms' hackers, or poeple who've created alternative programming languages. They're protecting their good name, as any of us would do.

    And now back to playing with Mindstorms. I'm building a bot with two RCX modules, coordinating them to build a useful exploration rover... this is one damned fine toy, and Lego deserves all the credit in the world for bringing it to us.

    • There would be no LegOS without Mindstorms...

      Well the article mentions a huge boost of sales. I believe Lego has some good and experienced marketing department to predict sales under the conditions they think are correct. However LegOS, NQC and other Open Source stuff may have called a completely unpredictable boost. As the toy became something else, which managers could not think of.

      Besides, many higher-education institutions and even the US Air Force use it to teach robotics. An Air Force teacher even made a Ada->NQC translator for this toy. Now the question is, would Mindstorms be what it is today without Open Source? I doubt. Probably it would be another cute toy among thousands in a lost shelf of a Lego store.

      On what concerns LegOS. It is very hard to confuse a name with its purpose because, apart of its relation to Lego Mindstorms, this thing is useless . So it is hard to confuse it with something else. If LegOS was more general and had a more broad use, then Lego could have had a right to claim defense of its good name. But the fact is that LegOS is deeply dependent on the technical characteristics of Mindstorms. So it is hard to miss it. So its name is, somehow, an additional advertisement for the set.

      I think it is correct that LegOS has such a name. Because it is a real true "Lego Operating System". So much for the purisms of today's libertarian commercialism where "all's MINE!!!!".
      • I think it is correct that LegOS has such a name. Because it is a real true "Lego Operating System". So much for the purisms of today's libertarian commercialism where "all's MINE!!!!".

        You don't understand. Failing to defend their LEGO trademark would cause them to lose it. Then anyone could call their product LEGO.

        Microsoft LEGO, DELL LEGO, Mattel LEGO, LEGO LEGO, Bob's LEGO, Toy'R'Us LEGO, Jell-O LEGO...

        Trademark is something that they have to defend or lose it.
        • They've known about legOS for at least 30 months (go search for 'Noga' and 'Lego' on Wired) and haven't breathed a peep about infringement until now. So... I'm not sure what the equivalent of a statute of limitations would be for something like this but they've already let it go for a long time.
        • by Dwonis ( 52652 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @05:45PM (#2271467)
          LEGO could always license their trademark to Noga for that particular use.
          • Hmm... Not a bad solution. (Really!) Except, if they let the LEGO trademark be used by LegOS, it might seem that they are supporting LegOS. If the next version of LegOS crashes and burns or programs LegoDroids to have sex with your cat, what then? And what happens when the next guy writes LeggyOS?

            Yeah, I know, it's only the trademark being licenced. At this point I'm out of my depth and won't go any further. (This may violate the slashdot members' code, but so be it!)
            • I don't quite get this; what would happen if Lego's product was used to create something that had sex with your cat?

              I would think Lego would not be liable, since they only created the tool. Otherwise, DeWalt would be liable any time someone accidentally used their product to saw through a support post, causing the house being worked on to collapse.

        • You don't understand. Failing to defend their LEGO trademark would cause them to lose it. Then anyone could call their product LEGO.

          Noga's OS is not an interlocking toy block, so his using 'lego' does not cause the trademark on toys to become more of a regular word.

          Microsoft LEGO, DELL LEGO, Mattel LEGO, LEGO LEGO, Bob's LEGO, Toy'R'Us LEGO, Jell-O LEGO...

          LEGO my EGGO!(tm)

          All of those would be fine under US law as long as they didn't compete in the same domain.

          Don't forget, trademarks only work in certain 'classes'. Of course, Lego may have gotten trademarks in all international classes if they wanted to. Like "LINUX" the operating system and "LINUX" the soap.

          On the other hand, what might happen here is that people might mistake LegOS as a LEGO product. If it sucked, it could dilute LEGO's brand name. So LEGO does have legal resource to sue, if they wanted to. But nothing bad would happen to them if they didn't.

          Also, 'defending' the trademark doesn't mean not letting people use it. LEGO could 'license' the name to Noga, if they wanted to.
          • Thermos and escalator used to refer to specific brands. *shrug*

            And isn't LegOS an OS for LEGO Mindstorm hardware? Sounds like a pretty close class to me.

            Anyway, as I've stated in other threads, this is now way out my legal depth. Direct further flames to []
      • On what concerns LegOS. It is very hard to confuse a name with its purpose because, apart of its relation to Lego Mindstorms, this thing is useless.
        This is EXACTLY why use of the LegOS name is so dangerous. It's not like Noga is marketing an OS for artificial limbs; if he were, there'd be no problem, since under US trademark law, his product would be in a different category from the Lego toys.

        But his "product" is VERY closely related to the product that Lego sells. The name is an obvious derivative of "Lego" or "legos" - none of that wink, wink, nudge, nudge routine now; anyone who says they believe the bit about naming it after his surname is either a liar or a moron. So you have a case of an unauthorized entity making use of Lego's trademark, in the very market that Lego has their trademark.

        Bottom line - Hasbro could come out with a line of building bricks and call them Lego bricks. When sued for trademark violation by Lego, they could reasonably claim that they were not violating Lego's trademark, because Lego had lost their trademark when they failed to defend it.

        Yes, it sucks that the world is like that. yes, it sucks that there are shark who will eat you if they can. But it is completely reasonable to smack upside the head the man next to you who is yelling "Yoohoo, Mr. Sharkie, over here!"

        I give Lego a great deal of credit for NOT smacking him, but instead asking him politely to stop. Noga's disingenuousness and unwillingness to understand the harsh reality of the world is apalling. Just because he doesn't like the way IP law works, he wants to ignore it, even if it harms the very company that's given him such a cool toy.

        Go read the IP FAQ (if you haven't already) and see if what I've said doesn't make sense. IANAL, but I am a pessimist.
        • Lego sells a $200 collection of hardware that happens to come with some software. Confusing a set of plastic bricks from Tyco with Lego products (if they were called legOS) would be easy. Confusing software written in C with motors, bricks and gears is pretty fucking hard. If Lego sold Mindstorms software separate and apart from the hardware, they'd have a very strong case for confusion. But they don't sell robotics software and have never indicated any intent to, so it is really hard to see where the confusion comes in.
          • It's their right to do so, still.

            Remember when Fox 'foxxed' the AliensTC on Quake?

            Then did you notice them releasing Aliens vs Predator, AvP gold, and AvP2?

            So Lego is being fairly nice about this, because it gives them the opportunity to release a robatics software kit, now that they know the amount of interest that exists.

            So it isn't about where the confusion comes in; it's about Lego's legal right to the name legOS and how the law works.
            • by delmoi ( 26744 )
              That's a bit diffrent. Fox had trademarks for the games.
              • Not quite; they hold the trademark for the Colonial Marines, Predators, Aliens, etc. Not for the games.

                Just like Lego corp holds the trademark for the term LEGOS and Mindstorms...

                So Lego doesn't have any control over the legOS software, but over the name since it's the same as their other products, and is software meant to interface with those self-same products.
          • Go read the IP FAQ. You clearly don't realize what legal issues are involved. This isn't about common sense - if it were, I'd agree with you completely. This is about the way the law works right now. Lego stands to lose some serious money if they don't protect their name.

            My preferred solution is to give Nogas the explicit permission to use "LegOS" - they've protected their trademark and been the good guys. The only problem is if LegOS turns out to suck rocks and gives Lego (the company) a bad name by association. That doesn't seem too likely.
      • LEGO can always officially bless this OS and make it official :)

  • by Ektanoor ( 9949 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:31PM (#2270970) Journal
    Well, since news broke some years ago, I tried to get an hand on a Lego Mindstorms. And well I'm old enough to vote a few times. However it is hard to get hands on materials and try to get a robot out of it. With Lego voila. It is cute, it's a toy but it has all the basics. One can read megatons of books but never become an expert without having some life with the Real-Thing (TM).

    Back then we had 17th of August, salaries going down 6 times and a rumours about Russia gong nuts. Besides back then we had Lego already but it was impossible even to search for a Technics set.

    Well two years passed. And in one shop I saw the damn bastard hanging. What to do? Get the money! Well, I was short of 20 dollars to get it, and my friends decided to protect me from this madness. So I thought I had lost my chance...

    However, recently it was my birthday. And I thought I should get a real good gift for myself. Well I was sure that the robot was already gone, bought by some fattened father for his not less fattened son. And what I see? That same set hanging just behind dozens of other Legos. One could barely see it on the corner. I asked the shopper why that thing was hanging there. "Well no one buys it. It's too expensive and people fear kids break it..." Besides the price was lowered by... Just guess... 20 dollars!.. Well I just said : "Freeze up that thing there I'M GOING TO GET THE MONEY!!!!!" In less than half-hour, I had the box in my desk.

    Right now the robot is here just facing my computer and waiting for another bunch of stupid commands that make him stuck the walls. I study NQC, LegOS and looking over some Forth and Ada realizations. On free time I read the processor specs and think on its potential uses. I'm thinking on how this stuff can be used to teach students some basics of robotics and AI. Besides, some people got quite interested on this stuff and think to buy a similar toy. Like me, they all vote for quite a long time... :)

    This is a tale of a lost and lonely robot in the corner of the shop. If Lego will try to "recover" its market, then this and many other robots will just lay there, with no use. No one of us needs their "Bricks constructor". We all need specs, tools, firmwares and open source. Because this is the best of all robots to learn the basics of robotics. And it is a great and cute yellow pet. In fact Lego should have made its toy for "Ages 20+"

    To Lego people if you see this. Keep it open source and help people to develope more soft for it. The reward will be much great than keeping it on the shelf for kids who their parents fear.
  • Lego though does have a good point. What stops Mattell from building a simliar toy, and use legOS as their OS? Think of how much development costs could be avoided.

    I myself support the hacking, but maybe lego could require anybody that makes an alternative OS, to have a liscence that has a line saying that "This software may ONLY, with no exceptions, be used in LEGO products." And than they go after the people that don't put that in their OS liscence.

    It's really cool - that mindstorms thing. I did somethign for a year called "First Lego League" as a sixth grader. We were the beta year, and it was a huge success. (except another group destroyed our robot) Mr. BIGGLESWORTH!!! (our robot name)
    • What stops them, even if Lego stomps on these hackers? The OS is hardly the crucial linchpin that holds it all together.

      Damn Lego! Damn them all... if you people can't come up with a compatible OS, we'll never be able to compete in the lucrative building block robot market!
      It's not that simple sir. Sure we can clone the hardware, standard reverse engineering practices made that possible the first 2 weeks. But without a savant like Noga to crack the million bit quantum encryption on the OS, we'll never be able to do it.
      Well, that's the one solution we don't have. The FBI still suspects that Lego had Noga assassinated to protect their secrets, but they are getting nowhere. Even the million dollar reward we offer hasn't had any bites...
      Damn them!
    • Lego would have more important things to sue Mattel over, methinks. For example, what if a company built blocks that had the same nub spacing on top, so that they seamlessly fit together with Lego blocks? Wouldn't that be more of a threat? If you had the dimensions of the blocks, and knew approximately what plastic formula to use, you could flood the market with cheap blocks and undercut Lego themselves. I think someone duplicating the Lego "hardware" product is a lot more dangerous than someone duplicating the Lego software/OS itself.

      Come to think of it, I've never seen any blocks that were piece-compatible with Lego. I've seen some obvious imitations, but for whatever reason they never would quite fit together with the real thing. You would think that someone would have already gotten into this market; maybe by producing more of those joints, hinges, and other bits you can never have enough of. Or maybe Lego's legal team has already been active...

      • If you had the dimensions of the blocks, and knew approximately what plastic formula to use, you could flood the market with cheap blocks and undercut Lego themselves.

        There already is: MEGA BLOKS []. They've got some nifty sets (the USS Kittyhawk [] set looks cool), but they're not Lego.

        In my (and other enthusasts' as well) mind, they just don't stack up against real Legos.
  • Now, I don't believe that open source is always the right tool for the job, but I think it is perfect for this sort of situation.
    The standard business model of selling software simply isn't right for Lego. They're basically selling hardware.
    Open source is the right business tool for this market. Lego should get together with some of the hackers and release a source code pack for anyone who wants to use it. If it gets modified into something better, all the more profits for Lego.
    Let's see open source do what it has always promised to do: make some serious dough.
  • Lego has shown extraordinary tolerence in dealing with the hackers. Perhaps its time for people to realize it works both ways. By naming his os LegOS, Nego is clearly just trying to tweak Lego. Come on. He could be a little more reasonable and change the name, rather then trying to poke the tiger in a way that is only going to lead to confrontation.
  • by sourcehunter ( 233036 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:46PM (#2271002) Homepage
    Good magazine normally, but I think they are a little short on news here, so they are trying to make something out of nothing...

    Once again, a "respectable" firm calls everyone, from the good guys to the bad hackers. So because I like lego mindstorm, I can shut down your website. Right.

    Business 2.0 is an american firm, and hence they are trying to invoke the "sue sue sue" response that the country is in right now... I must say I've lost some respect for them now.

    I do have one question though - I can understand a trademark infringement case ("LegOs") but intellectual property? That just isn't flying. Do I have to sign a license agreement when I buy mindstorm? Is there a shrinkwrap agreement saying I can't toy with the hardware? As far as I'm concerned (granted, IANAL), Noga is doing nothing wrong, and Business 2.0 is trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill. Paul Keegan, go do some more research.

  • Strange (Score:3, Insightful)

    by delmoi ( 26744 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @01:48PM (#2271005) Homepage
    This artical is weird. Asside from the name, I can't see what lego could possibly sue for. Since when has it been against the law to develop and market software for Computers you buy?

    I mean, how could it possibly be against the law to write software for a computer you own!?
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Its my understanding that the conflict is over protection of the trademark "Lego", which the Lego Company has successfully developed and placed in the households all over the world for some large number of years. If you don't vigorously defend a trademark, then it can be rendered public usage after a certain period.. This is why companies cannot strategically defend IP, because it wouldn't be fair to sue one company and allow another.
    • "I mean, how could it possibly be against the law to write software for a computer you own!?"

      If the SSSCA goes through, it damn well will be.
    • IANAL.

      Aside from the obvious issue with the name, it could very well depend on what patents they've been issued. For instance if they have a patent on "user programmable systems for manipulating interlocking toy blocks" then no one else can do this without permission of Lego even if they design their system without any knowledge of the software Lego is using.

      DMCA aside, historically it's legal to reverse engineer things you buy, but you can't use that knowledge to create things that would violate patents unless you get permission from the patent holder.

      Lego certainly holds patents on the hardware, but it's entirely possible that they have some that cover part or all of the software as well. After all it's not really a computer in the sense we typically expect and the patent office people may have decided it's sufficiently different to have different rules. I remember a while ago the patent expired on the RSA cryptosystem and that was just an algorithm.
    • Re:Strange (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Animats ( 122034 )

      Asside from the name, I can't see what lego could possibly sue for.

      That seems right.

  • Interesting. For once we hear a story about a company, a decent sized one at that, doing Good Things for a change, but it's a non-US company. Maybe the American Greed isn't such a good thing after all? Please correct me though? Are there any "good" US companies? (Or should I just get my passport fired up...)
  • by Russ Nelson ( 33911 ) <> on Sunday September 09, 2001 @02:04PM (#2271033) Homepage
    The Lego Reverse Engineering Site [].
  • Poll: Should Lego Sue?
    No: -------------------%95
    Don't Know ---------%3.7
    Yes ------------------%1.3

    Slashdotted for sure 8)
    • Re:Poll (Score:2, Funny)

      by s20451 ( 410424 )

      Poll: Should Lego Sue?
      No: -------------------%95
      Don't Know ---------%3.7
      Yes ------------------%1.3

      CowboyNeal: ---------------%100

      Conclusion: Lego should sue CowboyNeal. Why? ... Why not.

  • Lego is a toy where kids get to explore their creativity, not be dictated to about their imagination. The source code should be open and done under a license that both helps encourage the exploration of creativity while protecting the company interest in not having it end up being something they regret, something being used competitively against them.

    Lego sells the hardware, the physical stuff, the imagination is what their customers supply.

    There is very little imagination in a customer naming his Lego robotics OS LegOS. He should better express good will here, then by way of imitation.

    Perhaps the computer industry might take a hint from this "hardware" toy company. In realizing a whole hell of a lot more would get done that benefits everyone, by avoiding greed of imagination and imagination potential dictation.

  • More Information ... (Score:2, Informative)

    by wiZd0m ( 192990 )
  • by mindstrm ( 20013 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @03:05PM (#2271140)
    Their trademark and IP are not 'at stake'.
    They provide software so joe average can USE the stuff, not to 'control' it. They are not in the mindstorm software business, per-se, they are in business to sell legos.

    Of course they don't care if someone hacks it; it's our right to reverse engineer it and publish information about it. After all.. it doesn't hurt them one little bit.
    So far, the only industry thats' managed to prevent reverse-engineering to a degree is the publishing industry in general, via the DMCA, and then, only with regards to copy protection mechanisms.

  • by wiZd0m ( 192990 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @03:06PM (#2271143)

    who is running after me screaming ...

    It's GNU /LegOS !

    It's GNU /LegOS !

    It's GNU /LegOS !

  • by jrst ( 467762 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @03:14PM (#2271161)
    " sold a staggering 100,000 kits, far beyond the 12,000 units the company had projected. To Lego's surprise, some 70 percent of Mindstorms customers in the heady early months following its launch were old enough to vote..."

    What would you do if your a product found and unexpected successful market? I think Lego knows they've stumbled into an opportunity, but they're unsure of how to execute.

    Instead of focusing on "Should Lego sue?", focus on "How should Lego leverage this opportunity?" The simple answer IMHO: co-opt the individual efforts; make an "adult" product version or addons. Make Mindstorm *real* plug-and-play software/hardware.
  • by swordgeek ( 112599 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @03:28PM (#2271182) Journal
    This is the first article I've read in Buisness 2.0. I hope they're not all this bad.

    Lego isn't walking some 'fine line' between two extremes. They know full well that hackers messing about with Mindstorms will help their sales and market penetration, and are hence doing nothing about it. End of story. The trademark infringement issue is an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT SUBJECT, and there's no reason for tying the two together, except for the sake of sensationalism.

    Then there's the writing style.
    "Using it, a propellerhead of moderate nerdulence could build a tic-tac-toe-playing robot ..."

    Ye Gods, I'd be embarassed to sign my name to such an ugly phrase. There are others just as bad.

    So a badly written article that tries to create a tempest in a teapot. Whee! I did notice that most of the articles in the magazine are titled: ": To sue or not to sue." All of these things make very unanxious to read any more B2.0 articles.
    • Over the summer, Business 2.0 was sold and merged with eCompany Now. Almost all the B2 people were let go, so the new magazine is essentially eCompany Now under the Business 2.0 name. In either case it is written about and for CEOs and sales types, and somewhat for e-commerce webmasters, rather than programmers.

      I rather liked B2 before, but the new magazine isn't nearly as interesting.
  • I found it odd that this story, rather than getting classed under the Lego icon, got the Almighty Buck icon, especially because there was a "Lego" story only a couple stories down. I think that the Management should start using multiple little icons to denote their stories, though of course Mr. Katz would always need the Almighty Buck, and the US flag, etc etc.
  • by ziplux ( 261840 )
    What basis would they have for a lawsuit? The hackers haven't done anything illegal.....they've simply reverse enginered a product they bought. Am I missing something? (yes, I did read the article.)
    • Re:Sue? (Score:2, Informative)

      by sinster ( 518986 )
      IANYL ("I am not your lawyer")

      Lego has no real basis for a lawsuit based on the /existance/ or /use/ of NQC or LegOS. They could try to sue (as mentioned in the article) because these products, if used with the lego mindstorms hardware, could cause failures that Lego wouldn't be able to support. This would indirectly tarnish Lego's name and cause losses. At least that's the theory. It wouldn't take a hell of a lot of effort for a defense attorney to show that since the products themselves are only usable with Lego's products, that the existance of the products directly benefit Lego's sales. And by Lego's own admission, their sales are vastly higher /because/ of the existance of NQC and LegOS than they would otherwise be. Since users of NQC and LegOS don't approach Lego for tech support (Lego has terrible Mindstorms tech support), the claim that failures in NQC or LegOS would tarnish Lego's name is also easy to refute.

      But that's about existance and use.

      LegOS has a naming problem. It possesses a name that is textually identical to a registered trademark of Lego. While every person has an automatic, unrestricted, nonexclusive use trademark to their own names (see McDonald vs McDonald's Corporation, England (I don't know which court), 1989), those trademarks generally only apply to a person's actual use name. While trademark applications have to specify the visual presentation of the trademarked phrase as well as the phrase itself, courts have generally applied trademark protection to any textually identical string, because of the rendering limitations of the Internet, newsprint, and other general printed matter. Since the author of LegOS can only claim the use of the word "Leg" as an English language translation of his real name, that use protection doesn't apply. A very good lawyer might be able to convince a court to allow use protection of translations as well, but it would be hard.

      In order to prove trademark infringement, the plaintiff has to show 3 things (on top of the claim of trademark, which is a trivial claim to make):

      1) the use of the trademark is not in reference to the trademark holder or its products,
      2) the trademark is used in a way that is likely to cause confusion in the minds of third parties (read: those third parties might conclude that the use /is/ in reference to the trademark holder or its products),
      and 3) such a confusion would cause harm, in fact or faith, to the trademark holder, its products, or the trademark itself.

      Even if all three are shown, the defendant could still win if he can show that the trademarked phrase has already entered the common vocabulary in reference to the general class of products or services to which the product or service specifically named by the trademark belongs. Two examples of this exemption are "xerox" and "kleenex". These two are registered trademarks referring to a company and a series of products in the first place, and a series of products in the second place. But both have been ruled to have entered the common vocabulary in reference to the process of photocopying, and facial tissue, respectively. The holders of those trademarks (Xerox and Kimberly-Clark) still engage in legal scare tactics to prevent the general use of what was formerly their exclusive trademarks, but they almost never go all the way to court unless they have an alternate attack avenue to fall back on.

      It would be easy for Lego to show the first and second points to a court's satisfaction. Harder to show the third, but not all that hard. And it would be very difficult (if not impossible) for the author of LegOS to show that the exemption applies.

      In other words: I would conclude, on the basis of the information currently available to me as a person who has not been retained or consulted by any party to the matter, that it would be relatively easy and inexpensive for Lego to successfully sue over the naming of the alternate Lego Mindstorms firmware that is currently referred to as LegOS.
  • by luge ( 4808 ) <{gro.yugeit} {ta} {todhsals}> on Sunday September 09, 2001 @04:37PM (#2271294) Homepage
    1) This exact article was done by Forbes 2 years ago. At that time, Lego was very happy to have Markus and other folks hacking on legOS. If anyone can find a 'free' link to that article, I'd appreciate it, but the Forbes archives are not open so I can't link to it. Sources of amusement: that Business 2.0 feels that this is original or interesting writing.
    2) The article (and Lego, apparently) act as if Markus still maintains legOS. He hasn't committed to legOS CVS or spoken to the mailing lists in over 18 months (last post to lugnet [] was in March 2000.) He also doesn't maintain the 'official' website anymore- the one on hasn't been updated in a similar length of time and has been supplanted as the canonical reference for legOS by
    3) Lego has known about legOS since at least Feb. of 1999, when their PR people told Wired that "'People have also done stuff [created programming tools and components like LegOS] on their own as well, and that's fine,' Dion said." [] For them to change their minds now, more than 30 months later, is pretty low. I can't afford to fight it (I'm the defacto maintainer of legOS and coordinated the last release) but I'm fairly certain that a decent copyright lawyer could demonstrate that 30 months of knowledge and lack of action over a supposed violation makes the violation non-actionable.
    Anyway... I'm not Markus, so I can't really answer questions about this. But I can say that this whole episode is pretty disgusting. I hope Lego will come forward and clear the air, and soon.
  • I think that most slashdotters will some one of the obscure links in this article, which go to other sections with "three expert opinions" on the situation. The first of these is linked "before" the article, so I'm betting almost everyone missed it. Here are the links to the three opinions and the article itself:

    Eben Moglen's Opinion []

    Mike Dooley's Opinion []

    Ronald Johnston's Opinion []

    The main article, by Paul Keegan []

  • by Kamelion ( 12129 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @06:14PM (#2271521)
    From the article:
    If it -- or any other third-party OS -- becomes widely used, Lego would have trouble vouching for the reliability of its product and providing tech support. More worrisome, another company could use Noga's LegOS to create a competing product.

    One of the things that saddens me is the way Lego has gone into reverse with their robotics system toy line. The orriginal Mindstorm kit had supperior hardware to the present kits. The orriginal RCX 1.0 brick had a 9V power jack which allowed you to power the brick w/o batteries. Starting with 1.5 and now 2.0 the bricks have no external power source.

    The newer kits comming out of Lego are really dissapointing. The Scout, toughted as the future of RCX on some Lego pages, has only two inputs, two outputs and the light input is hardwired into the brick so it is less usefull. The Scout is a representation of the first labotomized RCX.

    The newer micro-Scout is less usefull as it has one output and input and they are both internalized. It is also not programmable the way the Scout and RCX are.

    If someone competes with Lego maybe we will see an improvement in the technology rather than the cheapening we have been witnessing. I would love to purchase an RCX brick with 6 or more inputs and outputs. Especially if it can run LegOS.

    It is a shame that the Handy Boards are so darn expensive.

  • Biting the hand? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Logic Bomb ( 122875 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @07:22PM (#2271664)
    Interesting piece about Lego trying not to bite the hand that feeds it

    How is it doing that? As the article notes, users of LegOS represent a miniscule fraction of Mindstorm users. There is no mention of any attempt by LEGO to discourage any 'hacking' that has been done, only the very legitimate issue of trademark dilution. Quite frankly, the matter should be entirely resolvable by the first step LEGO is planning: the friendly letter/phone call. If it is not, it will only be due to the ego of yet another pain-in-the-ass hacker, biting the hand that feeds him -- not the other way around.

  • by rossz ( 67331 ) <.ogre. .at.> on Sunday September 09, 2001 @07:26PM (#2271675) Homepage Journal
    I'm part of the legOS project on Sourceforge (though certainly not amongst the more active members). This is the first time I've heard of anybody suing anyone over the name legOS. I'm sure I would have seen something on our mail list by now, if the corporation had a problem.

    The Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention set is the coolest toy ever created. Th legOS project has no intention of diluting the trademark of the Lego corporation. Our documents clearly state we are not part of, nor sanctioned by the Lego corporation.

    All we want to do is take a fun toy, and have a hell of a lot of fun with it. Being hackers (not crackers), fun involves reverse engineering and coding in C and assembly language.
  • My advice to the makers of Lego is to do likwise.

    Intel is in no way responsable or liable for the quality of the software that runs on it.

    Lego is in exactly the same position. Let LegOS thrive the same way Linux is thriving and for exactly the same reasons. It serves different needs.

    Its not even necessary to provide interoperability but it would be the smart thing to do. If Intel had done that from the start, its customers might have saved a trillion dollars and a billion person-hours lost to the malevalent M$ monopoly.

    A model of cooperation instead of beligerence and bullying might serve to inspire future industrial empires.
  • by Above ( 100351 ) on Sunday September 09, 2001 @09:19PM (#2271893)

    If I buy a ford truck, and jack it up, put a light bar on it, custom paint it, tweek the motor and do all sorts of wacky stuff Ford doesn't sue me for violating their "IP". They don't ask me to take the name off of it. In fact, if I make kits to modify the vehicles they are happy as a clam, as it sells more cars.

    If I buy a house, add an addition, change the colors on the walls, swap out the heater, and then tell people it's a "Toll Bothers Hose" they don't sue me for violating their IP. I can rip the walls down and 'reverse engineer' it all I want.

    Now, if I buy a mindstorms kit and write better software for it, that's grounds to sue?

    This is all way out of hand.

  • I think maybe guys like Noga just don't know when to quit. OK, he wrote an OS. Great, but then he has to name it LegOS; just to see how far he can take it. It seems like that's what it's all about with hackers sometimes: "how much can I tease the lion before it will break the bars on its cage, come out and bite me".

    So, is it really all about curiosity and fun, or does the same "because it's there" mentality also cover the area of corporate lawyers. Yeah, let's tweak the corporate lawyers "because they're there". That's not smart, it's not constructive, it's not even nice.

    It's probably Legos fault for not drawing the line sooner. That's what happens sometimes when you try to be a "nice guy". People walk all over you, tweak your nose, spill milk on you, take your lunch money--just because they can. Hmmm... maybe hackers are taking *revenge* for their childhood struggles. At any rate, If I were Lego I'd order a cease and desist on the trademark infringement, and make sure people knew that using a 3rd party OS voided the warranty. I wouldn't knock myself out to maintain backward compatability for the next release, but at the same time I wouldn't knock myself out trying to encrypt the code or enforce some DMCA-style anti-cracking law. In other words, I'd walk that "fine line" like they were talking about.

  • ... would be for LEGO to give Markus a license to use their trademark for the operating system. That protects their trademark rights (because he can no longer be seen to be infringing) and keeps everyone happy.

    [Declaration of interest: I run LegOS on my robots].

Given its constituency, the only thing I expect to be "open" about [the Open Software Foundation] is its mouth. -- John Gilmore