Like his classic puzzle cube of rotating red, yellow, blue, green, orange and white squares, Ernö Rubik’s well-ordered world now requires solution.
Now 72, the Hungarian former professor of architecture wears a slightly faded blue polo shirt and sandals, and has chosen a place partly in the shadows.
Though he retired 12 years ago, he still reads, researches and invents. But these days one thing visibly affects him: the danger of losing intellectual ownership of his great invention.
His Rubik’s Cube might be the world’s top-selling toy of all time, but this fall the European Court of Justice will decide whether it has a legitimate trademark.
A clear “no” came this spring from the Advocate General, whose summation often decides the outcome in legal proceedings. If that stands, Mr. Rubik could be deprived of his life’s work.
“It’s not the business that is important to me,” said the inventor, who considers himself both an artist and designer. “But when you’ve created something that you really like, then you care about your creation.”
If the court rules against him, anyone could copy the brightly colored cube design, including the German-based Simba Dickie toy group, which initiated the trademark lawsuit.
Mr. Rubik created the cube in 1974. At that time, he was teaching at the College of Art and Design in Budapest and wanted to help his students think in spatial terms.
When he held the first wooden prototype, he knew he had achieved something significant. But he could not even imagine how significant.
Since then it has had sales of more than 400 million and is now widely considered the most successful toy of all time. Mr. Rubik estimates one in seven people worldwide have played with it at one time or other.
When he invented it, Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain and part of the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc.
The puzzle toy — originally called “Büvös kocka” or Magic Cube — was produced in a small factory. There was no advertising in Hungary’s planned economy, but the number of fans quickly increased.
“Many cubes made their way to the West,” Mr. Rubik recalled. “Hungarian mathematicians took it to conferences throughout the world.”
Hungarian travelers, who were only allowed to take a limited amount of cash out of the country, soon found that the 3D puzzles brought a high price in the West. “At that time, the cubes were hard currency,” said Mr. Rubik.
In 1980, Ideal Toy Co. in the United States acquired the rights for the Western world. They marketed it under the inventor’s name, and the Rubik’s Cube became a sensation.
Ideal assumed it would sell 1 million cubes. “Instead,” said Mr. Rubik, “100 million were sold in the first three years.”
The inventor, in the meantime, was allowed to leave the Eastern Bloc for the first time, to travel to a toy fair in New York.
Many people had the same experience as Mr. Rubik, who initially needed an entire month to solve the puzzle by rotating colored squares to their original positions on the cube. A solution requires that each of the six surfaces is a solid color – either all blue, red, orange, yellow, green or white squares.
Today, quick solutions are only a click away and thousands of explanatory films can be called up on YouTube, and recently Rubik’s Cube has enjoyed a revival. In the United States, for example, children’s and science museums feature “Beyond Rubik’s Cube” exhibits and “speedcubing” competitions.
Every two years, the Rubik’s Cube world championship is held. Last year, there were some 5,000 competitions, in which some participants sorted out the pattern blindfolded or with their feet.
The inventor attributes the renewed interest to nostalgia: “Because the 80s are ‘in’ again,” he explained.
But it might also be that children who grew up with the internet are discovering the fascination of actually holding a physical game. Pop singer Justin Bieber, for instance, is said to be able to solve the puzzle in 83 seconds.
This year, sales figures will most likely be the highest in 35 years, said Rubik Brand Ltd., the company founded three years ago and headed by Mr. Rubik.
The cube is not only a toy, but also a design icon; since 1982, it has been on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That unmistakable design is the subject of the legal dispute initiated by Europe’s patent monitors. The patent for the cube has expired, but in 1999 Mr. Rubik registered it as a trademark.
Since the end of the 1980s, three-dimensional forms can be protected in the European Union, but with restrictions. If a form is necessary for achieving a technical result, then no trademark can be awarded.
This is the argument of the Simba Dickie Group. Since 2006, the German toy company has been working its way up the judicial hierarchy trying to have Mr. Rubik’s trademark declared invalid.
If the toy maker’s logic is ultimately approved, Mr. Rubik’s lawyers believe the decision will impact many industries.
“Many three-dimensional trademarks would come under pressure,” said Nick Kounupias, an expert for intellectual property.
For instance, the Hermès handbag, known as the Birkin Bag, might no longer be protected because its buckles fulfill a function.
When he talks about the dispute, Mr. Rubik likes to quote Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, who called imitation the “sincerest form of flattery.”
But it is clear from his demeanor that Mr. Rubik would prefer not to have to concern himself with the issue of intellectual property. He’d much rather invent something new.
This article first appeared in the business weekly, WirtschaftsWoche, as sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com