PARIS — Block construction, robotics and basic coding — all in one package, and especially designed for a non-tech-savvy public. That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind Mindstorms, which toymaker Lego first introduced two decades ago to teach people (children primarily) about programming, but in a fun way — by creating educational robots that walk, talk, etc.

For the first versions of Mindstorms, the two Lego engineers who came up with the toy — Gaute Munch and and Erik Hansen — worked closely with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Munch is now director of advanced technology at Lego System. Hansen is director of innovation. Both are "industry" category finalists for the European Inventor Award, given out by the European Patent Office.

The right to use the software is given so that people can modify or add [..] new features to the existing open-source software.

As time went on, Munch and Hansen decided that to improve the toy, they needed feedback from consumers. As a result, the Mindstorms robot is now equipped with advanced motors, new types of sensors, an improved programming interface and a new operating system. Its infrared communication system has further been replaced by Bluetooth, allowing connectivity with phones and other connective devices.

Around the world, more than 200,000 students and 30,000 research teams use Mindstorms to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The game is also available for purchase in stores around the world. "Some Mindstorms users will choose to become programmers, engineers or scientists," Hansen says. "More broadly, our ambition is that Lego Mindstorms helps fans of all ages sharpen their imagination and creativity, as these are important skills in life."

The designers are firm believers in collaboration and the principle of "coding for all." It's no coincidence, therefore, that the Mindstorms software remains cost-free. "This patent is, at the behest of its creators, an operating system that is free to use," says François Herpe, a lawyer specialized in intellectual property at Cornet Vincent Segurel. "A copyright exists, but the right to use the software is given so that people can modify or add, usually without major constraints, new features to the existing open-source software, and therefore to the product."

Children build and test Lego-Mindstorms-Robots at technology camp in Germany — Photo: Bodo Marks/DPA/ZUMA

The approach is all the more noteworthy given the emphasis Lego has long placed on protecting the know-how of its engineers. As far back as 1961, the Danish company sought to legally protect itself from competition through a patent on its brick. It wasn't until the patent became public, in 1988, that dozens of "Lego Clones" appeared on the market, including Mega Brands in Canada, Hasbro in the United States and Lepin in China.

Lego's response was swift: trademark registration with the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market, copyright on the brick, and registration of the shape of the figurines as a trademark. The company has always been very aggressive using the law to protect its innovations.

But as lawsuits against "copycats" multiply, Lego is now facing a new challenge: 3D printers. The devices are becoming more affordable (they cost only a bit more than a game console) and therefore widespread, meaning people will increasingly have the option of manufacturing their own bricks — right in their living rooms.

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