Tinker Toys, the Easy Bake Oven, Cabbage Patch Dolls–most adults fondly remember the toys of their childhood. Many, inspired by their own children, dreams of “the toy they always wanted”, or visions of fame and fortune attempt the formidable leap from ordinary citizen to toy inventor. What, at first glance, might appear to be a relatively simple process is, in fact, a labyrinth of research and documentation requiring tenacity and diligence. For toy designers, the thrill of creating something exciting to share with others is tempered by the reality that the toy industry comprises a market of $21.2 billion in the United States alone. Large toy manufacturers routinely file lawsuits against each other in an attempt to protect their unique products and designs, and, ultimately, their piece of the financial pie. Amateur toy designers can increase their odds of protecting their original ideas and shield themselves from lawsuits by devoting a significant amount of time to studying and implementing an understanding of patents and trademarks.
Patent and trademark laws and processes vary according to country. In the US, the Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is responsible for issuing patents and trademarks. A patent protects an inventor’s right to manufacture and sell an invention and prevents others from selling the same product. Trademarks protect a distinguishing “word, phrase, symbol, and/or design” (USPTO) associated with a particular product.
While obtaining patents and trademarks is a time-consuming and complicated process, inventors can do some of the initial legwork and research on their own before hiring a patent attorney. The Inventors Assistance Center (IAC), a branch of the USPTO that assists inventors from the general public, strongly recommends keeping a dedicated bound notebook containing sketches, research, etc. for each idea that will serve as a legal record throughout the design, patenting, and production process. Existing patents can be searched online through the USPTO database or Google’s recent collaboration with the USPTO.
After the initial research and discovery phase, the IAC recommends filing a provisional patent application that holds the design idea as the inventor’s intellectual property for one year. Provisional applications do not go through the official patent examination process, but they do establish an earliest filing date and allow the term “patent pending” to be included with information about the design as the inventor presents their idea to toy companies or searches for financial backers. Before the provisional term ends, a non-provisional application must be filed. To protect the entire design, inventors will need to consider filing non-provisional applications for both a utility (how something works) patent and a design (how something looks) patent. Non-provisional utility patents have a term of 20 years and design patents last for 14 years. Once the non-provisional applications have been filed the patent examination and approval process takes, depending on the type of product, an average of 32 months. It is also important to explore the necessity of filing patents in other countries; that process can be streamlined through the Patent Cooperation Treaty system.
Thoroughness during the patenting process can establish the longevity and success of a product far into the future. LEGO, twice named “Toy of the Century” in 2000, is arguably the most-loved, most-recognizable toy in the world. Understandably, LEGO Group devotes massive amounts of time and money to protect its patents and trademarks that cover its broad catalog of products. LEGO had humble beginnings in 1932 under the leadership of Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, but quickly developed innovative products thanks to the ideas of Christiansen’s son, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen.
Although the company adopted the name “LEGO” (from “leg godt”- Danish for “play well”) in 1934, it did not officially register a trademark until 1954. As the company moved from wooden toys to plastic, the distinctive LEGO coupling system was patented in 1958. The brand expanded exponentially throughout the years with the addition of DUPLO, LEGOLAND theme parks, retail stores, books, and video games, as well as licensing partnerships with companies like Disney and Pixar.
Being an international toy powerhouse does not guarantee immunity from companies who try to profit from your original ideas or patents. Since LEGO’s patents began expiring over 20 years ago, they have been involved in numerous lawsuits, particularly with Mega Blocks and Best-Lock – two competitors that produce blocks with striking similarities to the Danish blocks. The company website even contains explicit directions regarding the use of its logo and other trademarks on LEGO fan-based websites. Recently, LEGO has lost most of its court battles, and the company’s origins have been tainted by the revelation that Ole Christiansen got the idea for the now-famous interlocking blocks from British psychologist Hilary Page who passed his sketches and prototypes on to Christiansen. Despite these setbacks, LEGO continues to lead the way in toy innovation; at the February 2013 American International Toy Fair, LEGO debuted 250 new building sets.
Navigating the waters of toy development is not for the faint of heart. Luckily, numerous quality resources exist for those interested in bringing their creative ideas to fruition. Meticulous research and detailed record keeping, as well as the tenacity to follow through on an idea just might net you a place in the National Toy Hall of Fame. If you have a toy dream, see it through to the finish!
United States Patent and Trademark Office-Inventors Assistance Center
Excellent introduction to the process of filing a patent or trademark. Videos, search engines, and information on pro se and pro bono assistance for inventors with little financial backing.
World Intellectual Property Organization
An agency of the United Nations “dedicated to the use of intellectual property as a means of stimulating innovation and creativity”. Provides a wealth of resources for inventors including case studies, on-demand webcasts, and databases.
The website of the professional organization of the toy industry is a comprehensive site that includes helpful statistics and resources for would-be toy inventors.
Read the stories behind the toys in the Hall of Fame or nominate one of your favorites to be included.
Popular Danish-based toy company’s site highlights new products, popular videos, and hosts message boards for its fans.
Erector sets were the toy of choice for many boys over the decades. A.C. Gilbert saw his invention as more than just a toy; he believed it was a powerful tool for learning about building concepts.
Designed by Xavier Roberts, Cabbage Patch Kids caused a Christmas shopping frenzy in the early ’80s. Skillfully marketed as babies needing a family to love, the dolls come complete with their own birth certificate and a “birthmark” (Roberts’ signature) on their bottom.
What began as a catalog featuring historical girl characters and their doll counterparts has exploded into an profitablem toy line featuring movies, a magazine, and multiple lines of books, dolls, and accessories located in Middleton, Wisconsin.
Now distributed by K’NEX Products, Lincoln Logs were invented in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright, son of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Named in honor of President Abraham Lincoln, the toy is still made of real wood as it has been since its inception.
The cornerstone of the Mattel toy company is not without controversy; the shapely doll is often criticized for her unrealistic body proportions and contribution to unhealthy body image in young girls. Despite the negative press, girls ages 3-6 own an average of 12 Barbie dolls.
The iconic art toy with origins in metal lithography celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010.
The best-selling Rubik’s Cube was invented by Erno Rubik in Budapest, Hungary when he needed a model to help teach three-dimensional geometry. Rubik’s Cube aficionados now gather for ‘cubing’ competitions; in 2011, Feliks Zemdegs set the single solve world record of 5.66 seconds.
A true American success story, the Radio Flyer wagon was developed by Italian immigrant Anthony Pasin.
Like many toys that have stood the test of time, GI Joe today is a toy empire that includes online games and videos, an animated series, and full length movies. Joe’s original claim to fame when it was originally released in the 1960s was that of first action figure.
Wildly popular with the preschool set, Thomas the Tank Engine was created by Reverend W. Awdry for his ill son, Christopher.
Little Golden Books were the brainchild of George Duplaix, who wanted to bring quality affordable children’s books to the American public. The books showcased authors and illustrators such as Margaret Wise Brown, Garth Williams, and Richard Scarry.
From its inception, Crayola has been dedicated to the production of safe, quality art materials, particularly for students and teachers. The company celebrated its 100th birthday in 2003.
Despite an oil crisis which caused a rise in plastic prices, company owner Horst Brandstatter pushed forward with his ideas for small affordable play figures, and PLAYMOBIL became an instant hit. Today the company employs 2500 people.
The Nelson Knitting Company began producing red-heeled socks in order to set their product apart from copycats. Enterprising mothers began using the worn out socks to create stuffed toy monkeys, and in 1952 the company began including a sock monkey pattern with every pair of socks sold – a practice they still follow today.