Ted Talks – LOZ 4 LULZ

Hey Kentucky! Welcome back to the Manifesto and more importantly to our regular feature Ted Talks, where friend of the blog and bon vivant Ted Andes shares his wit and wisdom on a wide variety of topics.  Without further ado, take it away Ted!

“I’m just waiting for my man.”

Many regrettable life decisions have been made after an acquaintance says something like, “Hey. I’ve got something really cool that you might be interested in.”  It is usually something taboo, like in those cautionary tales of an “after-school special”, or shown in a public service ad; “Just Say No.”.  Of course YOU would never consider doing such things, and yet here you are.  It is no longer hypothetical. Someone has “the stuff” conveniently placed in front of you, right here, right now.  What do you do?  There is no harm in having a little taste, right?… But that little taste is all it takes.  You have just become another statistic, jonesing for your next fix.  I’m not talking about the dangers of playing MMORPG-style video games, or putting back a couple shots of Malört.  I’m talking about what lurks in the deepest, darkest, yet most adorable corner of the LEGO clone brick underworld. I’m talking about LOZ.

 “Ahhhh… That’s the stuff.”

For those not familiar with LOZ, here are some links to their websites.  I would guess that the vast majority of you reading this would walk the path of the righteous, and not give these parts a second thought; “Yet another Chinese company blatantly knocking off LEGO sets?  And knocking off the alt-build designs of AFOL’s too? Boooooo!!!” That’s what I had thought too… but there is a catch that you might not have expected from seeing the photos of their pirated sets; all of their parts have been shrunken down to 3/4 the scale of their LEGO sized counterparts.

Customer Site: LOZ Diamond Building Blocks iBlock Fun | Loz-blocks

Corporate Site: http://loz.en.alibaba.com/ (scroll down to watch their corporate video)

Zhenfeng toys – “20years – Plastic toys, Building block & Baby potty / With Rich Professional Experience”

Based on their corporate website, it looks like LOZ is mainly focused on targeting the European markets.  The numbers seem too evenly balanced on their map (almost everything is set at 10%), so who really knows for sure.

Flint Griffin (a.k.a. “Random Vector”) was the acquaintance giving out demos at Brickworld Chicago to anyone who wanted to give them some play; “You want to see the most adorable bricks ever? It will blow your mind!” he said, or something to that effect.  “If you build something cool with them, I’ll even let you keep the MOC.”   The first time he beckoned, I was still busy getting that darned speeder coaster to work.  Once Saturday’s public display hours had ended, however, I needed a little something to take the edge off.  “Give me a hit of that micro play brick, will ya?”

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“Psst. Over here….  Aren’t these the most adorable bricks you’ve ever seen?”

Huddled around a back table at Brickworld, we gathered and played with Flint’s random pile of LOZ.  Once the visceral reactions to these being pirated bricks had subsided, the novelty of these pint-sized parts shined through. For those of us that have the LEGO parts catalog ingrained into our psyche when we build, the transition to using LOZ was relatively seamless.  Whenever I started wondering if LOZ had made such-and-such a part, sure enough I found it on the table; Pneumatic T’s? Technic bricks? Clips with bars? Click-hinges? Dishes? Travis (Jr.) bricks? Printed BrickHeadz eyes?  Yes to all.  LOZ has made a three-quarters-scale copy of most new LEGO parts you might wonder about… and of course in the typical LEGO colors.  It really was just like building with shrunken down LEGO parts.  (I’d be curious to see the reactions of people who thought they were actually buying standard scale LEGO knock-offs, only to find much smaller bricks upon receipt… priceless).  They even have some of the parts you always wished LEGO would make, like double-sided plates with studs on both sides.

This sharing (plagiarizing) of the LEGO parts catalog is both a blessing and a curse.  Many times sitting at the table, I was thinking “I’ll just stop here and finish the rest at home with my own LEGO parts… Oh wait. I can’t. These aren’t LEGO, and mine won’t work with them.”   Putting random pieces together, I noticed that the part quality was really good. The only breakage I had witnessed was on a small chain linkage, which was understandable. The parts can be really difficult to both assemble and separate at that scale, so having their 3/4 scaled brick separator would have definitely helped at the time (they do actually make one!).

Before playing with these LOZ bricks, I would never have given them a second thought.  No way would I ever be interested in messing with them, let alone buy them. Who needs them? Who cares?…  But in the setting of a brick convention, they made for the prefect curiosity; a jigsaw puzzle, drawing like-minded builders around a table together to “MOC and chill”.  Part, part, pass.

“Stop and think about everyone you are hurting.”

LOZ were brought back into my consciousness a couple weeks ago, after I saw a post on flickr about the latest LOZ set; a knock-off of the LEGO VW Beetle and Gerald Cacas’s alternate build.  Here are the links to do the comparison; LOZ  Vs  “My alternate MOC was cloned!!!”

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“SHAME!!!  … SHAME!!!!”

Seeing the blatant plagiarism of Gerald’s design, the reactions from the building community were as expected, including the suggestion that he “sell instructions so they lose sales.”  However that is not exactly a counter move against LOZ, since they are selling a 3/4 scale version, using 3/4 scale bricks. The only way that would impact LOZ is if they in turn have their own knock-off competitor, also making all of the LEGO parts at their 3/4 scale size (is that meta enough for you?).

Gerald mentioned that he tried to reach out to The LEGO Group (TLG) to let them know, but he said that they just shrugged their shoulders. It makes you wonder what TLG ‘s strategy is in defending their intellectual property (IP) when it comes to LOZ:

  • Did TLG balk since their main brick patent had expired, and the 3/4 scale parts are not a direct 1-for-1 knock-off (unlike the worst offender, LEPIN)?
  • When the cloning is being done in China, is the Great Wall of government protectionism and red tape is not worth the effort to surmount?… or is it a situation of “Sigh. We know. Just add it to the pile.”?
  • At this stage, what IP does TLG consider the most vital to protect? The LEGO trademarks? The set designs?  Their other individual part designs? The minifig? … We all know how they feel about anyone calling the building blocks “LEGOS” vs. “LEGO bricks” (to protect the brand), and any photo leaks of to-be-released set designs (to ensure they are first-to-market before any bootlegs can surface).

On top of all of those TLG specific considerations, there are also all of the licensed themes that LOZ have made into “Brickheadz”, Disney’s catalog being a MAJOR one. Does LOZ actually have the licensing to market these sets?  I can’t see how. For TLG to be paying a licensing fee to Disney, one would expect some kind of contracted exclusivity so that TLG is the only company licensed to produce building-block sets of the licensed theme.  So then that means that LOZ are REALLY thumbing their noses at not only TLG, but a bunch of other mighty big companies.  That’s crazy… Crazy like a fox.

LOZ might be taking the approach of “any publicity is good publicity”. Want to get the attention of the largest hive of building bees?  You could plant some nice original designs of flowers or something to attract them… or instead you can kick the hive!  This plagiarism of part designs, set designs, and licensed themes is a sure fire way to drop a cherry-bomb into the hive and get those bees to take notice (and maybe one even writes a blog article, despite knowing full well that he is playing right into their hands…). Sure, the bees all want to sting LOZ now, but it still creates a buzz that will draw at least few new people in.

All of their blatant plagiarism was a hard conflict for me to overcome in buying anything from LOZ.  As with all creative endeavors, I want to ensure my support goes directly to those who developed the IP, as best that I can… however, the small scale of those LOZ parts themselves were still very intriguing.  After much deliberation, I finally decided to purchase a couple of sets as research for this article… and for the lulz.

“Treat every customer with your heart”… as for everyone else, well…

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I ordered 3 LOZ sets; the aforementioned knock-off VW Beetle (with its equally knocked-off alternate AFOL design), Spongebob Blue Hero, and a yellow Transformers Scorpion.  Their sets were priced cheaper if you bought them without their packaging, so that is exactly what I did.  LOZ offers free shipping on orders over $25 US too, which is amazing for international shipments. I placed my order on August 2nd, and the box arrived in my mailbox in Kentucky 11 days later.  That’s pretty fast for a shipment being sent half way around the world.

The shipping box was made from that rice paper cardboard that most recycling centers in the USA refuse to take (the fiber length is too short to be reprocessed back into paper products… now you know). It was also the kind of shipping box that your postal carrier will have no reservations in trying to cram into your much smaller mailbox, because they are too lazy to get out of their vehicle and walk to your door.… Just “crease, crumple, cram”… You ‘ll do fine.

Inside the box were all three sets and their instructions, each placed in their own plastic zip-bag. I wasn’t actually planning to build any of these sets, but for the sake of this article I sucked it up and built the knock-off VW Beetle (to me, the only thing less enjoyable than sorting is being obligated to build the set first… it’s why I have a growing pile of unopened LEGO set boxes collecting dust). Each complete LOZ set comes in unnumbered ploy-bags, so if you plan to build them you WILL have to do some sorting first.

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What’s inside?…

Their instructions are printed on a movie poster sized fold-out, harkening back to those massive fold-out roadmaps that many of us used before car-mounted GPS navigation became all the rage.  The instructions themselves were straight-forward enough, apart from an odd 1×1 round plate that they wanted me to attach onto a hidden underside somewhere.  Each step shows a lot of parts added at once, so you will need to pay close attention.

Part separation is still an issue with these parts, so place them thoughtfully.  This is especially true if you didn’t get a part separator included with the set – the one I found was included in the yellow “Transformer” set. There was a moment or two where I thought I might be missing a part, but everything was accounted for in the end.  After the ‘Blue Beach Car’ was completed, there were tons of parts left over too.  That made it a little deceiving as to how much longer it would take for me to complete the build. I assume most of those extra parts were used for the alternate knock-off build, but I think LOZ also erred on providing extras just in case.  That deserves a “LOZ size” bit of praise.

Messing around with the leftover parts, I discovered that LOZ bricks are actually compatible with LEGO bricks. At the 3/4 scale, the LOZ anti-stud tube is the same diameter as a LEGO stud. This means that a LOZ tube can fit inside of anyplace that a LEGO stud could, and that a LEGO stud can fit into anywhere that a LOZ tube would.  Here is a pic illustrating this fact (along with showing the 3/4 scale difference side-by-side in a 2×4 plate, and the brick separator).

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LOZ vs LEGO bricks

There is no real point in reviewing the ‘Blue Beach Car’ design itself, as it is just a slightly altered version of the original.  Instead, I think a rundown of how LOZ Brickheadz compare to LEGO Brickheadz works just as well…. And plagiarizing the plagiarizer’s mouth-piece blogger while doing it… (with my own added comments in parentheses)

  • LOZ offers characters that LEGO doesn’t – we think that’s awesome! (well of course you would, since you blatantly ignore international copyright and product licensing laws)
  • Both sets had easy-to-follow instructions with colored illustrations (meh. I guess you got me there. LOZ’s instructions were indeed colored)
  • LEGO pieces are chunkier which *may* make handling/building easier for novices (Oooooh. Hear that, novices? LOZ are hard to handle now…)
  • LOZ Brickheadz have more detail and more play-factor (play-factor? You mean that mask that flops up to imply that all Brickhedz are all androids? A classic knock-off toy company move, if there ever was one)
  • LEGO Brickheadz are ideal for model collectors who want to create a display (Um… okay? Care to explain this point?…wouldn’t LOZ be better, since you could fit more of them on a shelf?)
  • LOZ Brickheadz have “daintier” proportions which may make them less suitable for kids (HEY! NO TOUCHING!)
  • We had a ridiculous amount of fun building both models! (I have no counterpoint for that – they ARE copying the original designs from LEGO, so it stands to reason they would be equally fun)

“Be gone, foul demon! The power of Ole Kirk Christiansen compels you!”

For the final chapter in this morality play, I took the ‘Blue Beach Car’ model and the loose LOZ bricks to recent meeting of local builders for some show-and tell. You might remember Charley and Nate from reading my BrickUniverse Louisville 2018 round-up.  Charley is a dyed-in-the-wool LEGO man through and through; he has the original LEGO brick patent number memorized, celebrates Ole Kirk Christiansen Day every year, prefers to set our local meeting times to those printed on the LEGO clock tiles, etc. You get the gist – Everything is Awesome… if it’s LEGO!  Nate is more of a pragmatic man, and falls near the other end of the building-block spectrum.  He’s open to whatever is readily available, and he has been working the Duplo like a boss.

When I originally mentioned LOZ blocks to Charley three weeks ago, his baseline reaction was the equivalent of “wake me up when I care.”  Seeing them in person didn’t change his opinion that much, but he didn’t come down on them as hard as I thought he might either. It turns out that he is a “live and let live” kind of guy.  His feeling is that someone was considering LOZ, it would be when they cared more about building the set-model than about what parts they were actually using to build it.

Nate thought the LOZ were intriguing, but our conversation led to a discovery that was even more intriguing to me.  I learned that Nate is working on a massive Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles MOC exclusively using Mega Bloks.  As a challenge, he is purposefully going to exclude any LEGO from the MOC.  Because of that he thought it wouldn’t be kosher for him to bring it to the next BrickUniverse Louisville (mark it on your calendars everyone – January 19th-20th, 2019!). I told him, “Bring it! You definitely need to bring it!” If someone is purposefully buying Mega Bloks by choice to build an individual MOC layout, then LEGO purism be damned!  That is something I just have to see!

“No matter how hard I scrub, I still feel so dirty.”

My original intent in writing this article was to take a hard look at how LOZ sails the seas of piracy, and I ended up telling someone to bring Mega Bloks MOCs to a brick convention.  What a crazy turn of events (I think I need help).  I have certainly used my fair share of 3rd party LEGO-compatible parts when LEGO didn’t currently have a viable solution; Big Ben Bricks train wheels, the CDX rollercoaster, BRKS baseplates, custom stickers and printed parts, and who can forget butcher paper!  Using a majority of non-LEGO building blocks has never been in consideration for me, but should that mean everyone else has to build that way too?

So what say ye’, constant readers of the Manifesto?  Would the novelty of LOZ’s 3/4 scale bricks mark an exception to your purist ways?  If you planned to build a certain LEGO set model, like the VW Beetle, do you think you would be tempted to buy a 3/4 scale version of it from LOZ (and at only 45% the cost, depending on location)? Ignoring the long list of corporate ethics violations and moral dilemmas for just a brief moment, I can’t find too much to take issue with in the actual part quality, the price, or the service. Their discovery that they are semi-compatible with LEGO parts also made for an intriguing development.

In the end, however, the facts remain.  I simply can’t ignore that LOZ are pirating set designs and disregarding copywrites (no matter how well they “treat every customer with their heart”).  As informed consumers, we should all strive to be patrons to the creative design originators, rather than those who are knocking-off their works. For me, this first LOZ purchase will most likely be my last…. The shame… -=scrub=-… -=scrub=-… the shame just won’t wash off…

PIRATKOPI GODT!!!

Crack is whack! (bonus link to the classic, and highly improbable “Just say no.” ad)

A Conversation with Dan Kees (Blog or Die! Entry #19)

Accepted entry for the “Interview” category.

Author: LettuceBrick (Nice Try)

Word Count: 1,906

Judge’s Note:

* This entry was submitted before the deadline (Mon, Jan 15, 2018 10:10 pm), but I didn’t have a chance to post it until today.  The entry is valid and accepted for final consideration.

A Conversation with Dan Kees

 

With whom? I’m glad you asked. Dan Kees is the owner of PromoTec Specialty Printing, purveyors of, well, specialty printing. Oh, and he also prints custom designs on all manner of Lego for all manner of clients. And to top it all off, he builds! So without further ado, enough blather and on to the interview.

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The Standard Questions

LB: How did you get into Lego as a child and/or adult? What keeps you interested?

DK: I probably had some type of building blocks since birth.  I had DUPLO as a baby and never remember a time without LEGO. I got my first standard LEGO set when I was five, and it’s all I ever wanted after that. I probably entered my dark ages around age 16 or so. I actually brought all my LEGO to college but only pulled it out a couple times. When LEGO joined the force with Star Wars in 1999, I was drawn back in big time, and have been building ever since. I stay interested as an AFOL because of the high stress job I have owning my own business.  LEGO works as a great stress reducer. It’s just plain fun! Another major aspect of the hobby for me now is the community. I’ve made some great friends through LEGO clubs and conventions.

LB: What are your main areas of focus when it comes to building?

DK: My wife and I put on a large LEGOWEEN display every year, so that takes up a lot of my building. I always like to make at least one large “Wow” MOC each year. Those have included a working roller coaster, a large castle, and 55 Central Park West…otherwise known as Dana’s apartment building from Ghostbusters. I don’t really have a favorite theme. I’m often inspired by a single piece and just go from there.

LB: Describe your acquisitive process and how it relates to your building.

DK: I always try to avoid buying a lot of sets, though LEGO makes that very difficult. They keep releasing such cool sets that really appeal to the AFOL community. My main budget goes to Bricklink where I buy thousands of parts for our Halloween display every year.

LB: Do you use your own printed items in creations? Other third party products?

DK: Yes and Yes. When I first started printing, I made a lot of woodgrain tiles. I use these extensively in my MOCs. However, I rarely print anything new for builds. I use a lot of custom minifigs and accessories from companies like BrickArms and BrickForge.

The Printing Questions

LB: You run a printing business which also involves Lego pieces. How did you get into printing onto Lego? Is there an engraving component as well?

DK: I’ve worked in the printing business for almost 30 years. When I first joined BayLUG, I printed some LEGO business cards for fun. I went to my first convention that same year and was really introduced to the concept of custom printed bricks. I instantly thought…hey, I could that!  I got the word out and had multiple customers overnight. I do not do any engraving, just digital and pad printing.

LB: Are there any specific challenges that Lego presents that other materials do not? Or is printing on Lego easier?

DK: Printing on LEGO is actually pretty easy. They are made from ABS plastic which accepts ink very well. They are also very consistent, which makes them easy to print in bulk…especially when printing bricks. We can interlock them in stacks and print a large quantity very quickly.  The challenge comes from running a large variety of elements. Bricks and tiles are easy, but we also print all the way around minifigs. That can get a little tricky.

LB: I assume the customer provides the design and the materials. What challenges do you face in reconciling the two and what is the most challenging Lego printing job that you’ve faced?

DK: Fortunately, we deal mostly with large custom brick resellers. They typically send artwork that is accurate and well laid out. They also understand the limitations of the process. Some less experienced customers will draw extremely detailed designs that look great on screen. However, when you shrink them down to a 16mm wide minifig torso…they don’t work so well.  Minifigures are by far the trickiest jobs. As the industry develops, people want more and more detail as well as full wrap printing. Keeping things lined up over large runs is very difficult.

LB: I know you participated as a vendor for at least one Lego convention. How did that experience compare with your more usual method of sale?

DK: Vending at a convention was tricky, because I missed so much of the convention. I quickly realized I was not cut out for retail. I really enjoy printing more than selling individual parts.

LB: What is the future of custom Lego printing for you and the market in general?

DK: The future of custom LEGO printing is really in the digital process. There are a few of us pad printing parts, which is the process that LEGO uses. Pad is great if you want your custom parts to look like LEGO made them. However digital opens up a whole new realm of possibilities with raised effects, unlimited color options, and filling in nooks and crannies that pad printing cannot accommodate. Our ratio of digital orders to pad is probably 50:1. I don’t see any end in sight for custom printing. As 3D printing and desktop UV inkjet printers come down in price, I think we’ll see a lot more people getting into custom parts and printing. I’m excited to see what the next generation comes up with.

LB: To what extent and with what rigor do you separate “hobby Lego” and “work Lego”?

DK: There is a hard and fast rule that my work and personal stock shall not mix! On the rare occasion that I supply parts for a client, I always buy them “New” from Bricklink or LEGO PAB. Some parts are inevitably ruined when used at work.

 

The Community Questions

LB: How important is the Lego community both online and more locally to you as a printer and a builder? Do you sell to AFOLs only or just conventions or also the general public?

DK: The online community is much more important to me as a builder.  I like browsing the many Facebook, fan, and other community pages. It’s fun to see what people are building around the world. I feel like I could travel to just about any country and find some AFOLs to hang out with. I don’t use the online community much for business. Many of my favorite sites do not allow commercial posts…which I totally agree with and respect insistently. I have a pretty good set of regular clients that keep me plenty busy. I mostly sell to larger resellers. I get occasional requests from other AFOLs, but our order minimums usually don’t fit their projects. I no longer sell any of my own designs.

LB: Do you have an online Lego presence, business or otherwise?

DK: Not really.  I am involved with a few Facebook pages, but that’s about it. Most of my business comes from word of mouth and repeat clients.

LB: You have of late also taken part in Bricks by the Bay convention planning. (For a while now I think.) I believe you supply the brick badges and other printed items. Could you describe some of the planning that goes into that and other aspects of the convention?

DK: Yes, BBTB is one of the biggest highlights of the year for me. I love being involved with the organization. I print the badges, and any other custom parts needed for minifigs, event kits, etc. I donate a large portion of the printing. It’s a great way to give back to the community that I’ve enjoyed for so long. Recently, my company has also taken on some of the kitting for the con. It can be surprisingly complicated, but it falls right in line with our business. It takes an exhausting amount of planning to pull off the CON each year. I tried doing too much when I first joined, so now I make sure to only take on responsibilities that I have time to do well. I’m not nearly as involved in the overall planning as I once was. I mostly focus on any custom printing needs and kit planning for the badge, event kit, and workshops.

LB: Have you participated in collaborations?

DK: Yes, mostly with BayLUG.  I love helping set up large displays. It’s something I always wanted to do as a kid but never had enough stuff.  Now we have an unlimited arsenal of builds to create huge layouts…super fun.

LB: What is the Lego community’s greatest strength? What about its greatest failings and/or weaknesses?

DK: Hmmm…interesting question. I think the community’s greatest strength is the product itself. I strongly believe that LEGO is one of the most enduring and inspiring products ever produced. I would not be in a technical/manufacturing field today without it. Our greatest weakness? I’d say we expect too much from LEGO. We oftentimes forget that this is, at its core, a toy meant for kids. The AFOL community is a large demographic, but let’s not try to fool ourselves. LEGO is a toy company and needs to be run like one. They cannot cater to our every whim…and there are a lot of them 😊

LB: Do you have any thoughts on TLG itself and its relationship with fans, both of adult and long-term variety and of the more general customer?

DK: I think TLG goes above and beyond its core responsibilities when dealing with the fan community. They have been extremely generous with their support for BBTB and BayLUG. I’m sure it’s a constant struggle within the company to balance the fan relationship with core business values. LEGO Ideas was a huge bridge over that gap. I think they’re on the right path with the level of support they offer us big kids.

LB: And at long last, what do you think the future holds?

DK: More awesome sets and new parts! I often hear people say that LEGO has lost its way with all the new parts. They would prefer we only had 2×4 bricks. Those well-meaning folks just don’t get it. With every new part, LEGO opens our building palette to new possibilities. My favorite part of viewing other people’s builds are seeing the endless creative uses of new parts.

I do hold a bit of fear towards how LEGO will compete with the digital distractions kids now face.  LEGO struggles in the digital realm, with good reason. I feel the core of LEGO is the physical, tactile relationship between the user and the medium. I’ve used LDD a bit, but nothing compares with that satisfying “click” and having a great model to show for your efforts.  Emerging markets will help keep the company strong for years to come. Hopefully, future generations don’t get too lost in screens, and will still appreciate good old fashion playing with their friends.

Thanks!

LB: Thank you very much for your perspectives on general tomFOLery and your insights into the printing side of what you do. All the best for this still relatively new year!