Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Attack of the LEGO Clones

Can you spot the clones? If you can, you've probably wasted too much of your life on LEGO :)

An eBay order came in the mail today. Sadly, a few parts turned out not to be authentic LEGO. Probably a few Mega Bloks just crept in, right? So I've contacted the seller about exchanging them.

But wait a minute -- why do I care? The "clone" parts are almost identical to the LEGO parts in the same lot. If you look look closely are there tiny differences in dimensions, color, and finish. If I used the clone parts, very likely they wouldn't be noticed. I've seen comparable color variations between authentic LEGO parts (e.g., I recently got two shades of Bright Yellow in the same new set), and there are authentic LEGO parts with slightly different dimensions (e.g., a jumper plate with groove or without).

So why do I care, and how valid are the supposed reasons for caring?

Physical differences. The clone parts might actually be of different physical quality. They might not lock as tightly, or might break or degrade more easily. But as far as I can tell the clone parts I just received function well enough to use. I own old, worn, faded (but authentic) parts with comparable physical problems, yet I value them higher. Why?

Authenticity. It feels "wrong" for another maker to "imitate" LEGO parts. So far, though, LEGO hasn't succeeded in making that legal case. If the courts of several countries think it's ok, who am I to argue? Don't I use generic drugs if I know they have the same ingredients? If the clone parts were identical to LEGO and cheaper, wouldn't I set aside fairness to save money?

Purism. Many LEGO fans make a point of "purism' in their MOCs. There's a sense in the community that using non-LEGO objects in MOCs is "cheating"; not that it's malicious, but that it circumvents agreed-upon design constraints. Whoa there! If the clone is functionally the same shape and color as an authentic part, what design constraint is being violated? Cost? (Are we comfortable saying that having the money to buy authentic parts is a condition for participating?)

Expertise. As LEGO fans, we value our own expertise. Like enthusiasts in any hobby, we love to be able to pick out differences that the uninitiated wouldn't notice, and scorn things that the uninitiated wouldn't care about. It builds our self-esteem and sense of community. But does it really have anything to do with building a MOC?

Collecting. Some of our enthusiasm for LEGO comes from the sense of "collecting" things, and collectibles need to be "authentic", and preferably expensive. We want our collections to have value, and we don't like someone getting the same thing for less. Does that notion have anything to do with building MOCs? Not really, but it's part of our community's values, and it spills over to building.

Marketing. We also value the authenticity of "real" LEGO because it's a positive brand that we've come to value. Think of your favorite breakfast cereal. The store brand could taste identical in a double-blind taste test, but if you know which one is the brand you love, that's a factor in decision making (along with cost) -- even though it's functionally irrelevant. That's the power of branding and advertising.

None of that is meant to knock LEGO or the AFOL community. LEGO makes a high quality product and wants us to buy it, like any company; the AFOL community creates standards and values, like any community.

So now what? I'm still sitting here looking at these four clone parts. I can logically convince myself there's no reason to care. I may pay more for return shipping than the authentic parts would be worth. And yet, they're going back ...

What would you do?

1 comment:

  1. The main reason I do not partake in the use of clone pieces is that I believe it would be like denouncing Lego. I really like Lego because the plastic is so high quality and the pieces go together well. Most clones usually are molded out of low quality cheap plastic which doesn't last as long as ABS


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