What would you do if given the opportunity to see your LEGO MOC turned into a mass-produced set that others could then buy? What would you do if it meant working with a Chinese company reputed to have links with Lepin?
A report by the talented Allen over at thebrickfan.com brought attention to a new initiative by a Chinese company called Xingbao. This apparently new company are teaming up with prominent builders in the LEGO community to turn some of the most notable MOCs out there into boxed sets ready for purchase.
However, its parent company is reported to be Meizi Model, the same group that owns Lepin – the company who are facing a legal challenge by the LEGO Group for their notorious and illegal reproduction of LEGO products. There is absolutely no suggestion that the builders involved have knowingly agreed to collaborate with Lepin, nor are we able to verify if Xingbao and Lepin are definitely under the same ownership – at this stage, the builders in question have all reached agreement with a company they know as Xingbao to have their designs recreated. The emergence of this apparent link to Lepin, though, means that an already curious situation regarding reproducing fan designs with replica LEGO bricks, has an added twist to digest.
Xingbao are recreating MOCs from some big names in the custom LEGO building world, including the Arvo brothers, Paul Boratko, Firas Abu-Jaber and Bangoo H. Their work has featured in books, magazines and on several websites over time for its ingenuity, creativity and inspiration. It is clear in these builders’ dedication to their craft that their love for LEGO is second to none.
With that in mind, we reached out to all four of the collaborators, to understand their motivations for being involved in a project that could put them at odds with some purists (and, if the links to Lepin are founded, with the LEGO Group too), and they were all kind enough to respond. Whilst the Arvo brothers feel tied to their contractual agreement not to answer questions beyond confirming that they are working with Xingbao, Paul, Firas and Bangoo have all offered their thoughts.
Firas, who is best known for his expertise in recreating cars of all kinds into the humble brick, offered an honest and reflective response.
“I don’t work for them and I don’t work for LEGO, I’m just a LEGO fan myself,” Firas explains about the agreement he has with Xingbao.
“It’s so much simpler for me – someone was interested in and wanted to buy my designs and I agreed for them to do so.
“What they are going to do with those designs is up to them.”
Xingbao have been reported as having the same parent company as Lepin. How does Firas feel about these potential links?
“First and foremost, I don’t know why people are relating this company directly to Lepin, it might be owned by the same parent company, but it’s a completely separate company and has its own philosophy, point of view and name.
“For example, Audi and Volkswagen are owned by the same parent – VW has cheated on emissions and I wouldn’t buy their products, but I would still like to buy Audi’s.
“I must say that at the very beginning I didn’t know that Xingbao is owned by the same parent company as Lepin, but when I did [see the reports], that didn’t make any difference for me. As I say, it’s a separate company and that makes questions related to Lepin invalid.
“As far as I know, whilst not knowing the internal points of view of the company, Xingbao isn’t interested in taking or producing any design without the permission of the original designer.”
Whilst designers like Firas have permitted Xingbao access to their LEGO interpretation, some of the first wave of MOCs being recreated are based on brands and licences who are unlikely to have given the green light to the Chinese company.
“We are speaking here about brick built materials,” reflects Firas. “Even the most accurate car that I or any other builder has created cannot and will not be 100% faithful to the original design that it was inspired from, not even 70% in accuracy. Which makes the models closer to abstract-looking vehicles more than real life copies.
“If I put any of my MOCs next to any die-cast model of the same make, I can tell you that my version will look absolutely rubbish! For example, my Ford GT might look similar to a real Ford GT, but it’s not accurate or detailed enough to represent the real thing.
“But that’s still up to the original creators, if they see it as violating their policy then they have the right to take legal action against the company.”
Whilst being able to hold in your hands a design inspired by such a builder as Firas is going to be attractive to many, the fact of uncertainty over the quality, safety and integrity of the product’s ‘brick’ elements also raises concern. Firas attended the Guangzhou Toy Fair to help promote the partnership with Xingbao, so has hands-on experience of the sets.
“I can tell you, at least for my models, that they are about 90% or more faithful to my original designs, and were sturdy enough to play with, whilst the quality of the bricks was OK enough for me for a brick toy.
“I think that Xingbao is a company somewhat similar to Mega Bloks in the compatibility of bricks with LEGO bricks.
“I don’t think it’s a problem as long as they have their original designs – that’s why I agreed to cooperate with them in the first place. That’s what makes them different from other Chinese companies that just ‘steal’ others’ designs. And from what I know and from what I’ve heard, they will have more of their own brick designs in the future.
“I can tell you about my experience at the toy fair I attended in Guangzhou. It was actually an amazing experience and the guys of the company were very nice and generous to me, everything was perfect for my stay in Guangzhou. I just enjoyed my trip and stayed there, and enjoyed the fair as much as I enjoyed my stay. People were appreciating our work so much and saying that they would love to own the sets presented at the show.”
Meanwhile, Paul and Bangoo curiously both have previous experience of releasing instructions for MOCs and seeing those instructions then redistributed through the Asian marketplace without their permission – Paul tells us of having had this issue continue for the past eight years, whilst Bangoo, based in South Korea, has seen any number from 20 to 60 resellers listing his instructions – which he distributed for free – available for resale on Chinese equivalent sites to Amazon.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, such experiences, it is interesting to see both sign on for Xingbao’s project.
“I was approached and asked if I would like to be a part of a new company that wanted to work directly with builders the right way and not only compensate them for their design, but also include their names with those designs to give them the proper credit,” Paul explains.
“Believe me, I had thought long and hard about this and, after seeing so many AFOLs’ MOCs starting to show up as sets without their consent or knowledge, the fear of my work being stolen without my consent was growing.
“I basically felt like I could either get compensated for my work or decline, get nothing and possibly watch my models get stolen by someone else.”
Bangoo, due to the language barrier, has been a little less forthcoming on his involvement with Xingbao, but did allude to something that Firas also hints at – that Xingbao’s difference may not be just in how it is treating its builders as legitimate collaborators (and in return getting their all-important stamp of approval), but in how it could present itself as a ‘brick compatible’ product, rather than a direct knock-off to the LEGO Group’s properties.
Only time will tell on Xingbao’s motivations and positioning within the market, but the links to Lepin are what will be most important to clarify moving forward.
If they prove to be under the same parent company, then chances are this will be a short-term venture. If, however, they are proven to be independent and operating within copyright laws (that Alien Xenomorph and Akira bike should test that if nothing else), then we could have a more direct route opening up for talented fan designers looking to progress their work to a new marketplace.
Either direction that this project takes, this is an interesting development regarding the Asian marketplace and hopefully one that will generate the right discussion and reaction from the LEGO community, and the LEGO Group.