Rubik's Cube puzzled by loss of trademark

Knapps

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11, Nov 2016

Rubik's Cube, a three-dimensional puzzle, lost a trademark battle on Thursday after a European court said merely its shape was not sufficient to grant protection against those who copy it. Seven Towers, which manages Rubik's Cube, registered its shape as an EU trademark in 1999. German toy maker Simba Toys challenged the trademark protection in 2006. The world’s best-selling toy’s patent expired in 2000. Now, it has lost the trademark too.

What is the verdict?

Rubik's Cube, our favorite multi-colored three-dimensional puzzle, lost a trademark battle on Thursday after Europe's top court said its shape was not a sufficient condition to grant it protection against ‘copycats’.

  • British company Seven Towers, which manages Rubik's Cube intellectual property rights, registered its shape as a three-dimensional EU trademark with the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) in 1999.

But German toy maker Simba Toys challenged the trademark protection in 2006, saying that the cube's rotating capability should be protected by a patent and not a trademark.

  • Patents allow inventors to block rivals from making commercial use of their inventions without their approval for a certain period of time while trademarks give intellectual property owners' an exclusive and perpetual right to their designs, logos, phrases or words as long as they use them.
  • The German company took its case to the Luxembourg-based European Union Court of Justice (ECJ) after EUIPO and a lower EU court dismissed its lawsuit.

ECJ judges agreed with Simba Toys' arguments. Their decision is final and cannot be appealed. Seven Towers has lost the Rubik’s Cube trademark in Europe forever.

  • "In examining whether registration ought to be refused on the ground that shape involved a technical solution, EUIPO and the General Court should also have taken into account non-visible functional elements represented by that shape, such as its rotating capability," the judges said.
  • EUIPO will now have to issue a new decision based on the ECJ judgment.

Why cannot Rubik's Cube be trademarked?

The court held that the Rubik’s Cube grid structure greatly differs from other three-dimensional puzzles available on the market, which appear in a plethora of shapes including tetrahedron, an octahedron or a dodecahedron, or have an external surface which does not bear the same kind of grid structure. That shape – the court confirmed – has distinctive character which allows consumers to associate the cube to the well-known Rubik’s outfit.

  • The court also found that the rotating capability of the cube does not result either from the black lines or the grid structure, but from an internal mechanism which is not visible on its graphic representations. This means that the registration does not stop other companies making different three-dimensional puzzles which do not have the same surface layout as the traditional Rubik’s Cube, according to the court’s ruling.

Rubik's representative David Kremer said he was “baffled” that the court ruled that functionality or a technical solution is implicit in the trademark.

When can shapes be trademarked?

Apart from logos and brand names, three dimensional (3D) objects can also be trademarked, such as the design of Nestle's Perrier bottles or the color of Duracell batteries.

  • It is possible to register shapes as trademarks as long as they are distinctive, namely when they help consumers understand that the product comes from a certain company and thereby ensure that consumers receive consistent quality. Coca Cola, for example, has trademarked the shape of its bottle.
  • Shapes of objects that, despite being distinctive, serve a technical function cannot be registered as three-dimensional trademarks.

Case-in-point: A few years ago the shapes of the famous Philips three-headed shaver and the Lego toy-brick were refused registration as they had been considered necessary to obtain a technical result – a particularly efficient shave, on the one hand, and the interconnection between the bricks, on the other hand.

Where does the eternal appeal of the Rubik's Cube come from?

Rubik's Cube is a 3-D combination puzzle invented in 1974 by Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture Erno Rubik.

  • Rubik was trying to create a 3D mechanism whose parts can be moved independently without the object falling apart, which he could use as a teaching tool. It took Mr. Rubik more than a month to solve his own puzzle. He told in an interview that it was "a very emotional feeling". If you have ever played this puzzle and solved it even once, you would agree completing it is an emotional experience.
  • Rubik wasn't arrogant enough to name the toy after himself. Originally called the Magic Cube, the puzzle was licensed by Rubik to be sold by Ideal Toy Corp. in 1980 via businessman Tibor Laczi and Seven Towns founder Tom Kremer, and won the German Game of the Year special award for Best Puzzle that year.
  • When the product was launched internationally in 1980, it was renamed the Rubik's Cube – because the executives at the Ideal Toy Company, the game's international distributor, thought Magic Cube sounded “a bit witchy”. Although the Rubik's Cube reached its height of mainstream popularity in the 1980s, it is still widely known and used.
  • In the 35 years since the puzzle was available to buy outside of Hungary, approximately 350 million Rubik's Cubes have been sold, making it the world's best-selling toy. Ever.
  • Following the expiration of Rubik's patent in 2000, other brands of cubes appeared, especially from (you guessed it) Chinese companies. Many of these Chinese branded cubes have been engineered for speed and are favoured by speedcubers (yes, there is a term to honor those who can complete the puzzle faster).
  • Many speedcubers continue to practice it and other twisty puzzles and compete for the fastest times in various categories.

Who love this cube?

There are approximately 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 ways to solve the Rubik’s cube before playing, however there’s only one solution to the Rubik’s Cube puzzle, where each side of the cube consists of the same colors. This excites puzzle solvers.

  • The standard Rubik's Cube can be solved using a number of methods, not all of which are intended for speedcubing. Although some methods employ a layer-by-layer system and algorithms, other significant (though less widely used) methods include corners-first methods, and the Roux method. CFOP, Roux, ZZ, and Petrus are often referred to as the "big four" methods (we will not go into their details and ruin your fun), as they are the most popular and can be used to achieve faster times than the others. The CFOP method is considered the fastest method currently as it is has been used to set the fastest times.
  • The current world record for a single solve of the 3×3×3 in competition is 4.74 seconds, set by Mats Valk, and the world record average of five solves is 6.45 seconds, set by Feliks Zemdegs in July 2016.
  • Speedcubing is a popular activity among the international Rubik's Cube community, or cubers. Members come together to hold competitions, work to develop new solving methods, and seek to perfect their technique. As a part of the community, puzzle builders and model makers try to invent new forms of combination puzzles.
  • Mathematicians at MIT, however, may have found their way around the brute force computation. In a new paper, they have developed a standard algorithm that can determine how many moves are needed to solve larger Rubik’s cube, and they have developed a more efficient algorithm for solving cubes that start out in their worst state. They are ruining all the fun.
  • There is no limit to the passion for this cube. At a championship event held in Poland in June 2015, Jakub Kipa solved a Rubik's Cube in 20.57 seconds using only his feet. Marcin Kowalczyk managed to solve a Rubik's Cube at a Polish championship last year in a record 21.17 seconds – including the time it took him to memorise the position of the colours. Yes, he was solving it while blindfolded.

The toy's inventor, Ernő Rubik, takes about a minute. He still cannot really figure out how to solve the puzzle he unleashed on the world.

How is technology ruining the fun?

Damn this Artificial Intelligence; it is here to shame us humans again.

  • A robot has just set a new record for the fastest-solved Rubik's Cube. The Sub1 Reloaded robot took (hold your breath) just 0.637 seconds to analyse the toy and make 21 moves, so that each of the cube's sides showed a single colour.
  • At the press of a button, shutters covering the robot's camera sensors were lifted, allowing it to detect how the cube had been scrambled.
  • It then deduced a solution and transmitted commands to six motor-controlled arms. These held the central square of each of the cube's six faces in place and spun them to solve the puzzle.
  • All of this was achieved in a fraction of a second, and it was only afterwards that the number of moves could be counted by checking a software readout.
  • A special "speed cube" - designed to have less friction between its parts than the original version of the toy - was used to help keep the time to a minimum.
  • The Rubik's Cube record for a human is 4.74 seconds, very poor by robotic standards.

However, we humans are happy when we solve the cube. Check out the two videos in the References - at 4.74 seconds, the human jumps with excitement; at 0.637 seconds, the robot…does nothing. It is like - ‘OK, done. Next command please.’ For now, we will have to be content with this achievement. Wait, there is one more. We humans are building those robots.

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Tags | European court Rubik's Cube trademark battle