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May 2, 2024
John Rizvi, Esq.

Toy Company To Police Department: Lego My Face!

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On March 19th, 2024, Lego, the building toy giant, reached out to the police department of Murietta, California with an unusual complaint: that the department’s use of Lego faces to obscure the faces of suspects in arrest and booking photos, in compliance with newly passed California state laws, violated the company’s intellectual property rights.

The police department promptly stated they’d comply with Lego’s request.

But did the Murietta Police Department actually infringe on Lego’s rights? How do California’s new laws come into all of this?

And is this actually an IP case, or something potentially more disturbing?

Let’s take a closer look at how this all came about, and what it might mean for IP law in the future!

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In 2022 and 2023, the State of California passed laws that sharply restricted police departments’ ability to publish arrest photos and mugshots of suspects.

The laws also required that departments could not post mugshots for more than 14 days for most nonviolent offenses and that those nonviolent offenders whose mugshots were published online could petition to have them removed from departments’ social media feeds.

The intent behind these laws was to preserve the suspects’ rights as “innocent until proven guilty” and to allow people who had been improperly arrested to get on with their lives without those pictures haunting them.

In recent years, police departments all over the country have taken to social media as a way to engage and partner with their communities in the interest of combating crime and keep them informed of what the departments were doing.

These outreach efforts are often hailed by law enforcement and the public alike as a new way for departments to seek information from the public and to make the relationship between police and public more comradelike and less combative than some of the events of, say, 2020 might suggest.

However, a number of states have suggested or passed laws that sharply limit what police departments can post online about suspects and their alleged crimes, especially on social media. These laws have bred a contentious atmosphere between lawmakers and law enforcement agencies, who often claim that such laws stymie police departments’ stated purpose and undermine the relationship between police and law-abiding citizens.

The Murietta Police Department believed they had hit on the perfect solution: By concealing suspects’ faces behind emojis or a plethora of stock Lego toy expressions, they could adhere to the letter of the law while still delivering a strong message to the public that the police department was, in fact, doing its intended job.

The resulting social media posts, called the “Weekly Roundup,” became hugely popular and highly demanded by the public, spurring the department to release more of the pictures and making the MPD’s “Weekly Roundup” a viral sensation.

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But not Everyone Found the Images as Funny as the MPD and the Commenters on its Facebook Page.

Seminal building toy company Lego caught wind of the “Weekly Roundup,” apparently through a viral Facebook post the MPD released on March 18th entitled “Why The Covered Faces?”

In this post, MPD explained how California’s new laws governing suspect mugshots impacted the department’s ability to share information about arrests on social media and why they were using Lego faces with various expressions to conceal the real arrestees’ faces.

A day later, on March 19th, Lego contacted MPD and informed the department that it was in violation of the company’s intellectual property rights. The department promptly agreed to stop using Lego faces in its social media.

From an intellectual property law standpoint, this story really isn’t one, at least at the moment. An IP holder made a claim of infringing activity. The party accused of infringing the IP agreed to stop using it in the allegedly infringing manner.

In the eyes of the law, the matter is settled, unless the IP holder decides to take further action, such as suing the infringing party for damages related to the improper use of the IP.

This seems unlikely in this situation, as for all intents and purposes Lego essentially has no valid cause of action at this point. Lego would be hard-pressed to make a case that the MPD cost the company money or goodwill by using Lego’s faces to cover live-action arrest photos or mugshots of suspects.

Indeed, MPD could theoretically countersue in such a situation, arguing that its use of Lego’s faces actually boosted the company’s notoriety and its sales, and that the company in fact owed MPD for what amounted to free advertising!

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While it’s Unlikely that Either Such Action Would Go Anywhere of any Substance in Court, it does Raise Other Questions.

For example, the MPD nominally adhered to the letter of state law governing its jurisdiction by concealing the identities of the actual arrestees in a humorous manner.

But does this adherence extend to the stated intent behind the law, or does it represent malicious compliance in the form of a creative dodge to get around the law’s intent through punctilious but superficial obedience? And what about the citizens of Murietta themselves?

As California State Assembly member Corey Jackson said to the Associated Press, “Do they want people, who are being paid with their tax dollars, [to] be paid to put Lego faces on people so it can be shown on social media?

While they could be doing other things that could be protecting them?” Jackson pointed to other law enforcement agencies who were using other means of working around the laws’ clear language, such as posting photos of people detained in police cruisers or handcuffs on-scene, alleging that these usages were not the same as a formal booking photo and therefore not subject to the laws in question.

These questions remain open and under consideration by the California Department of Justice, and no clear answers to them are available at this time.

But was Lego within its Rights to Tell the MPD to “Lego My Face?”

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As the owner and IP holder of the faces in question, it is extremely likely that every Lego design is patented, copyrighted, trademarked, and otherwise protected to the limits that US and other countries’ IP law permit.

This means that Lego would have every right, and reason, to protect its brand from apparent infringement or usages which might call the brand or its products into disrepute. Associating Lego with criminals, actual or alleged, even in an overtly tongue-in-cheek fashion aimed at adults, could certainly be seen to fall under that rubric, and would constitute more than sufficient reason for the company to ask the department to stop such usage.

I want to reiterate here that, by the lights of IP law, MPD did the right thing by publicly stating it would comply with Lego’s request and cease such usage immediately. There’s a high probability that someone in the department with more social media and public relations savvy than knowledge of IP law thought they’d hit on a funny way of reaching out to the public they serve, without even considering that they might have been crossing a line. When MPD was confronted by Lego about the use of the company’s IP, it wisely backed away from a potentially messy and certainly expensive legal dogfight in which there’d be virtually no chance they could avoid being seen as the villains of the piece. Viewed in this context, there’s very little to say and nothing to argue about how this situation was handled on either side.

From a philosophical rather than a legal standpoint, however, this case offers rich opportunities for ethical and moral consideration of the tangled intersection between modern policing, the law, and technology; the rights of society versus the rights of those accused of criminal acts; and the right of public information versus the right to move on from one’s past and let mistakes for which one has paid in the eyes of the law be forgotten. These questions are beyond the scope of this article, but I think it’s reasonable to expect that as more situations like this make the news, and possibly the dockets of the courts, these questions will have to be reckoned with from the police academies and universities to the streets and the ballot boxes. And how we, as a society, answer these questions now and in the future cannot help but shape who we will become as a nation and a culture. For this reason, I encourage you, dear reader, to think on these questions for yourself, try on the different viewpoints offered in this case, and see how you’d answer them through each of those lenses.

About John Rizvi, Esq.

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John Rizvi is a Registered and Board Certified Patent Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Intellectual Property Law, best-selling author, and featured speaker on topics of interest to inventors and entrepreneurs (including TEDx).

His books include "Escaping the Gray" and "Think and Grow Rich for Inventors" and have won critical acclaim including an endorsement from Kevin Harrington, one of the original sharks on the hit TV show - Shark Tank, responsible for the successful launch of over 500 products resulting in more than $5 billion in sales worldwide. You can learn more about Professor Rizvi and his patent law practice at https://www.ideaattorneys.com

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