Bootleg By Definition

One of the most common questions I get in my “How to Spot Bootlegs” panel is “What is the difference between a ‘bootleg’ and ‘unlicensed’ merchandise?” The difference is massive, so I’m here to explain.

Throughout my time as a collector, I’ve noticed that “bootleg” is often used as an umbrella term for merchandise that is copied or created without a license. Regardless of the proper title, the merchandise is low quality and shares many common defects. Despite that, the term is actually a little more specific than the umbrella term it has become.


A bootleg is a fraudulent copy of a piece of existing merchandise made in mass production. This means that the licensing company has released or allowed a company to make a piece of merchandise and someone has created a copy of that item in an attempt to confuse the customer into buying theirs instead.

Some confusion created behind this is that sometimes bootlegs are made by the same factories hired to make the official versions. That is why some bootlegs are very convincing, but might not contain parts they do not manufacture like licensing company identification tags (holographic stickers) or the correct packaging. Bootlegs can also be made with stolen prototype moulds that are not destroyed when disposed of.

The manufacturers above do not have permission to create extra merchandise or use the disposed prototype moulds and are absolutely sneaky about the routes they take to sell this merchandise.

Common synonyms: knockoff, counterfeit, pirated (in reference to media with official releases that release copies)

So what about merchandise that does not fit the criteria above? Well, there are specific terms out there for that.

Unlicenced Merchandise

Unlicensed merchandise is an original product made in mass production based on an existing property that requires a license to sell or make merchandise. They have not gained permission from the person who owns the license to produce merchandise or paid the licensing fees, and therefore the merchandise is not official.

This can get a little confusing if a licensor allows a company to produce socks featuring approved artwork, and graphics, but another one creates unlicensed socks of their own design featuring original art. The unlicensed socks do not feature the same designs, therefore they are not copying the official socks and are not considered bootlegs.

Common synonyms: Unauthorized, Pirated (media with no official release/translation the unauthorized release takes the place of)

Where Do Fan Artists Fit?

Fanart can be a really big grey area when it comes to this conversation. The biggest difference is that most fan artists can not afford to mass-produce merchandise, therefore they are not typically viewed as unlicensed or bootleg. They are viewed as fanart. Mass production is typically considered to be around 10,000 pieces or more, and most artists can not afford or even store this much merchandise.

With that said, the creation of Print on Demand and Shop sites has somewhat changed licensors’ views on this. They do not provide much external view on how that item or artist sells, so it’s hard to tell if they do 1 sale per year or 1000 sales per month. So the overall view seems to be if you sell online you are fair game for a Cease & Desist.

Within the convention scene though, most licensors will consider an artist’s work a type of free advertising, except if they commit trademark infringement. That means situations in which an artist uses a logo, series name, or character name. There is definitely a little more to it, but these are the more common things event staff are asked to keep an eye out for. If you are an artist seeking legal advice I advise you to do your own research. This will not apply to all companies, and not many speak out about what they allow.

If you have any questions about specific words and what they actually mean vs how the community uses them feel free to drop them below. I’ll either tell you where they fit or include them in my post above.

My favourite places to buy official! (* include affiliate links)*

Bootlegs When a Creator is Problematic

As a Sailor Moon blog/site I just want to clarify that Naoko Takeuchi has NOT been outed as a problematic creator. In fact, she’s quite private, and it’s rare that even fans see her in public. If she is, it would be difficult for us to know. This post was initially created as a Facebook status in relation to THAT author and her problematic twitter account, and way of handling LGBT characters, or lack there of in-book.


We need to have a chat about buying official vs bootleg merchandise of a property created by a problematic creator. If you love a fandom, but have issues with the creator and don’t want to support them monetarily there are options, but the correct choice is not to stick it to them by buying bootlegs. Buying a bootleg seems like an easy choice. They’re cheaper if you buy them through certain routes, they’re often nearly the exact same product, the money doesn’t go to the creator… you CAN have your cake and eat it too!

…no, you can’t. Not that way.

Buying bootleg means you are buying from a manufacturer that does several problematic things.

1. Stole product designs.

2. They might have straight up stole a prototype mould that was not efficiently disposed of.

3. They might be the official manufacturer going behind the license holders back to manufacture cheaper product to sell under the table.

4. They’re willing to manufacture these products with subpar materials that don’t hold their desired shapes (warping/bending over time).

5. They’re sometimes willing to paint these products with unsafe paints that contain lead.

6. They’re willing to sell products with manufacturing issues such as breaking, short shots, dripping glue, bad paint, yellowing, flash, etc.

7. They’re willing to steal box designs or straight up make their own to trick the buyer into being convinced they’re purchasing official merchandise.

8. They’re willing to pass off what ever they’ve created from beginning to end as official to you.

9. In order to keep costs down you’re likely supporting a sweat shop and maybe even child labour.

10. They might be storing the product in a way that rats and mice have access and leave droppings or trace matter on your actual merchandise or boxes in a way that remains by the time it reaches your hands.

11. Depending on the product your merchandise may have human fecal matter or urine as an ingredient and not just trace matter.

12. The manufacture clearly doesn’t have safety standards for their employees at this point.

13. The CEO likely doesn’t have much in the way of care for human rights and freedoms if they’re willing to let all of this go.

If your response to “I love this fandom but the creator is problematic” is to buy bootlegs you are supporting people just as bad or worse than the person you’re trying to avoid. You may be supporting child labour and organized crime.

If you’re buying a $15 or even $35 official scarf for some random magical school the problematic person might only receive less than a penny for your singular purchase, but the designer of that scarf may have always been or felt pressure to switch to ethical manufacturing that may even be local within your country.

Alternatively, if you’re unconvinced or still feel icky about buying something official brand new I recommend keeping an eye on the second hand market. Often when new merchandise is purchased fans will quickly change their mind and resell. Your money goes to supporting THAT person, instead of the problematic person. Two people get to enjoy it, and maybe more if you pass it on when you’re done with it! There are plenty of ways to buy second hand. From eBay, to Facebook Marketplace, Kijiji, Etsy, and thrift stores. I’ve often found brand new items I’ve wanted for forever because I had patience. This is also a great way to get a better price than retail. I easily spent 1/3 the value of the items in my 90’s merchandise collection simply because I waited for deals or found them in thrift stores.

Last, support an independent artist. There are thriving artist communities for nearly every fandom, and even if there isn’t you can definitely commission an artist to make something you’re looking for. This DOES get a little more expensive, but that’s because you’re not supporting fast fashion, or mass production. You’re helping an artist pay for rent, food, and life.

Check out my other articles on bootlegs to learn more.

Please Note: This blog is ran by a pansexual polyamorous creator and hate will never be tolerated in the comments.

Quick Guide: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Bootlegs

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.

Pay Creators

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.

Ethical Practices

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.