A Tale of Two Time Machines?

So if form is what makes a LEGO model what it is, that settles the question of the DeLorean Time Machine, doesn’t it? After all, Team BTTF’s original design has a different form from the final set #21103. Different forms, different objects, right? If we come to this conclusion, perhaps the most we can say is that LEGO set #21103, The DeLorean Time Machine, was inspired by Team BTTF’s Cuusoo project, or originated in the Cuusoo project, but is a distinct model.

There are reasons to resist this conclusion. For one thing, both the LEGO Group and Masashi Togami seem to treat the final product as the work of the original designers. In the booklet that came with set #21103, Masashi said “I was able to see my dream become an official LEGO product.” In describing the Cuusoo/LEGO Ideas process in general, the LEGO Group states later in that same booklet, “If your project makes it through the review, then it will become an official LEGO product,” and the ad copy for set #21103 describes the final model as being “selected by LEGO Cuusoo members,” suggesting that the final set is the one that received over 10,000 supporters. All of these descriptions suggest that the initial design is numerically identical to the one that was commercially released, albeit with some modifications.

A second reason to doubt whether they’re two distinct models is that identity of form appears to be a question of degree of change, just as material identity is. Imagine someone took Team BTTF’s original design and made one small change, such as mounting a license plate on the rear. Now we have a different form, but intuitively isn’t it simply Team BTTF’s design, just mildly tweaked? The point here is that it seems we recognize some flexibility in form, while the model remains the same model. The form can change some, just not too much. So we still don’t have a final decision about whether set #21103 is numerically identical to the original Cuusoo model. Things are still just about as clear as Fabuland Brown-colored mud.

If you listen to many of the FOLs’ (Fans of LEGO) reactions to the final, released set, their collective response might be summed up as “they changed too much—it’s not the same.” This might be what philosophers term an aesthetic response rather than a metaphysical one. Perhaps our LEGO Ideas Guidelines can shed some light on the question of whether the Cuusoo-submitted model is the same model as the final set.

Consider again the possibility of someone copying Team BTTF’s design and making only one minor change. If submitted as a project, this would violate project guidelines, which state that anyone who submits a project “must be the original creator of all creative work.”2 We could imagine, however, that two people, quite improbably, submit nearly the same design for a model. This may not be entirely far-fetched. LEGO Ideas distinguishes two kinds of project: generic and unique. The Ideas Guidelines describe generic ideas as those that “already exist in the world.”3 Examples include “everyday objects like a fire truck, a historical landmark, or a Boeing 737 airplane. It even includes buildings, vehicles, or characters from TV shows, movies and video games.”4 A unique project, on the other hand, is one “that you conceived entirely yourself.” The guidelines elaborate by saying it’s “something you make up yourself, for example a fictitious vehicle, building or storyline.”5 Looking at the history of LEGO Ideas submissions as of 2016, most projects fall under the “generic” heading. Of those that have been produced, arguably only the Research Institute, Birds, and the Exo Suit are unique. The others, from the DeLorean Time Machine to The Big Bang Theory, are generic.

The Guidelines warn us that generic ideas “are fair game to anyone, so if you submit something like this others are also free to submit their own versions.”6 Indeed, the DeLorean Time Machine is fair game, and while others didn’t submit it to LEGO Cuusoo, it would be surprising if no one had tried to build one before. When two members submit projects with models that represent the same object, the project guidelines call this kind of circumstance “overlapping ideas.”

Since “the value of a generic project is not just in your model, it’s also in the concept (the way you present it),” overlapping ideas will almost always be distinguishable.7 In fact, the guidelines specify that if two overlapping ideas both make it to 10,000 supporters, the LEGO Review Board “will evaluate the projects separately and make the final decision on which project to produce.”8 Note that each of the two overlapping ideas had to be created independently in order for things to get this far. This requirement that all one’s creative work be original is our first step toward answering both the question of whether Team BTTF’s design is numerically identical to the final set and why Team BTTF deserves recognition and compensation for its work.

The second step can be found in the description of what happens when someone’s LEGO Ideas project is approved by the Review Board and enters the production stage. The Ideas Guidelines state that at this point, “LEGO set designers take the original submission and refine it into a LEGO product that’s ready for release ... the LEGO Group makes all final decisions on how a project becomes a LEGO set, including the final model design.”9 (emphasis in the original) The language of “refine” here skates over our question of the relation between the original design and the final model, but it does give us some insight into the process.

Regarding our DeLorean Time Machine(s), the accompanying booklet usefully details some of the process that preceded the release of set #21103. The LEGO designer assigned to the project was Steen Sig Andersen, and, as the booklet describes, “it was his task to transform Togami and Sakuretsu’s model into a true LEGO construction set.” Andersen says, “the original model was a great starting point and many of the ideas and details could be used in the final construction.” He talks about the wheels, which have to both roll and fold into hover mode, as a particular engineering challenge, but he doesn’t talk about the hood, roof, doors, or other components that changed. The language of “transform” and “refine” points to another relevant feature of the relation between the models: the initial model was the basis for the creation of the final one.

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