25 August 2020CopyrightRory O'Neill

IP Week: how Lego fights ‘copycats’ during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for brand owners looking to enforce and protect their IP. But given the importance of branding to major companies like Lego, they have little choice but to adapt.

Robin Smith, vice president and general counsel for Asia-Pacific at  Lego, spoke about the company’s enforcement strategy and how it has responded to the pandemic, at a virtual webinar hosted by the  Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS).

The event was held as part of  IP Week, a virtual conference organised by IPOS. According to Smith, the reasons as to why Lego values IP rights so highly are no different to other brands. “IP protects continuity, reputation, and the promise of mutual value to our IP partners such as Disney,” Smith said.

But the Danish-owned toymaker, which Smith described as the “biggest toy manufacturer in the world”, does face its own unique set of challenges. As one of the company’s top IP enforcement experts, Smith says the company’s IP challenges are mostly related to copyright and designs.

“It may surprise people, but we don’t have a lot of counterfeits,” Smith said. In particular, she emphasised the subtle difference between what the company calls “copycat products” (which infringe copyright), and trademark-infringing counterfeits.

In the case of copycats, infringers will take elements of our sets,” Smith said, continuing: “They may copy the box almost exactly but their logo will be on it, which is a case of copyright infringement. Customs officials and government officials haven’t had as much experience with that.”

Educating officials and authorities on what to be on the look out for is a key pillar of Lego’s IP work. But this has become more difficult over the past six months.

Even if it was possible to carry out actions like raids, Smith said, Lego faced a “lot of delays” in various countries due to lockdown restrictions.

Elsewhere, the company has had to go virtual with respect to its educational work and training sessions, which can be hampered by unstable internet connections in certain parts of the world.

“We managed a few raids in China during lockdown, where the infringers’ actions were particularly egregious,” Smith pointed out. She also notes that, like many other brands, Lego switched a lot of its enforcement focus to e-commerce as this became more of an important sales channel for infringing goods.

Being based in Shanghai and leading Lego’s Asia-Pacific IP team, Smith is familiar with the challenges international brands can face in China.

According to Smith, Lego has been able to overcome one major challenge in the form of courts’ and government officials’ “understanding the difference between counterfeits and copycats”.

“We had limited success with copyright actions in the past, but the law and understanding in China has really started to grow,” she said.

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26 August 2020   Andrei Iancu, director of the US Patent and Trademark Office, spoke about the crucial role of IP in fighting the effects of the pandemic at a webinar hosted by the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.
4 September 2020   A Shanghai court has handed down prison sentences for up to six years for nine individuals found guilty of distributing imitator Lego toys.
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