Before I start I would like to say that this is not an anti-bootleg post. For some people they’re all you can afford, and sometimes you simply did not know any better. Some collectors buy exclusively weird and funny bootlegs. The creator of Sailor Moon, Naoko Takeuchi, collected bootlegs of her franchise in the 90’s because she thought some of them were funny.
This post is to act as knowledge so that you know where bootlegs come from, what sort of risk they can pose, and why, in the end, you’re better off saving for the official item instead.
As a toy collector I’ve pulled my knowledge from other collectors, discussion with industry members, documentaries on the bootlegging industry, and nearly 16 years in the manufacturing industry in a variety of positions. I also host panels at conventions discussing how to identify bootlegs. In short, I’m not talking out of my ass, and do feel I am qualified to discuss this topic.
First of all, bootlegs do not pay creators. While in this industry we’re mostly talking about larger companies who are already established and doing well, bootlegs hurt small artists and newer companies as well. Regardless of size, bootleg sales hurt the companies you love to see new work from, and it adds up.
From several perspectives bootlegs are not valuable. They’re made to be produced cheaper than their official counterparts, therefore their flaws often diminish their value straight out of initial purchase. This is likely only a concern if you are a collector, but gained value can be helpful in a pinch.
Quality and Safety
The quality and safety portions of my points severely need to be combined. They intersect, and can greatly impact your home especially if you have kids, pets, or intend on using a bootleg item for something like a cake topper, or overall food decoration.
Material – To cut the cost of making an item usually a lesser quality material that is reasonably comparable is used. Reasonably comparable does not mean sufficient. Every country and industry has manufacturing guidelines they must follow. Certain materials must be used at certain grades. For example, silicone items for the kitchen must be made using “Food Grade Silicone.” This ensures it is safe for certain temperatures, washing, stirring, and all of the things you’ll do with it. A lower grade might melt in the dishwasher for example, or start degrading while you stir your spaghetti sauce. This could leave chunks of silicone in your food, or leak toxins that are undetectable until you’re sick later.
For collectors, this usually means materials that are not strong enough and a figure may lean until it can no longer stand, or that the material is one that omits a foul odor that can be toxic in certain amounts, or just unpleasant in your home. For say, one figure, that seems harmless, but if you have children or pets it can make them sick easier, especially if it gets in their mouth. It can also leech into your food if you’re using it as a decoration in party food, a cake topper, or any other way you can imagine using it.
Paint – Bootlegs are known for using lead paint. It’s less heard of today, but 20 years ago merchandise was being pulled from shelves in retail stores for containing lead paint. Here’s an article from the Mayo Clinic on lead paint poisoning.
Visual Aesthetic – This is less safety, and more quality, but bootlegs are not often made to be art pieces. The paint jobs are bad, glue leaks are common, missing pieces are common, and I’ve even seen pieces attached backwards. Bootlegs are manufactured for a quick buck. Not to get you cheaper merchandise.
Unhealthy Ingredients – When I use “ingredients” I don’t just mean what it’s made out of, but what traces can be tested on the product, or on the box. I’ve read of perfumes made with human urine, boxes and product testing for rat waste and poison, and even product with mould growing on it. Suddenly that off brand perfume doesn’t seem as great.
This is… a whole article on it’s own that even includes EVERYTHING I’ve talked about above… So I’ll try to be brief.
Bootleg manufacturing can be linked back to the theft of prototype moulds from the original manufacturer, or even the shop hired to produce official product backstabbing their customer by producing the bootlegs in the same shop with cheaper materials, or small changes to avoid lawsuits or discovery. In merchandise like purses there can sometimes be zero difference from the official bag to the bootleg, but the tags are not included, or the stitching isn’t as carefully done. The unethical behaviour lies behind the shop stealing the design and reselling product the owner of the license does not know about. Essentially their product is stolen.
To make their unethical behaviour even more unbelievable, bootlegging has been traced back to low wages, slave labour, child labour, and financing further black market industries like drug dealing, and sex trafficking. It doesn’t matter if you’re purchasing a purse or an anime figure. These companies are not transparent about where their money is going, and it takes a real investigation to find out.
In short, purchasing bootleg merchandise might seem harmless on the surface, but you don’t know what you’re promoting with your own money. You rarely have enough information to know whether your bootleg was “just” produced using a stolen mould, or whether it straight up pays for a lot of really bad things.
Why Does This Still Happen?
This article isn’t really about this, but I feel it’s an important answer to provide.
Most companies do not bother taking down bootleggers because it’s very expensive, and the second one is removed, another pops up. While to maintain copyright and trademark ownership they must show that they’re putting effort into protecting their properties, it’s way easier to do that to product listings online. Sending out Cease and Desist letters is way cheaper than spending years in court and finding the proof to back up your claims. Honestly… Maybe even physically safer in some cases.
At the end of the day, it’s easy to think you’re just buying a copy of something, but the whole bootlegging industry is so much worse than that.
Please Note: This post is meant as a “quick guide.” In the future I will be posting longer, more in-depth posts with resources.