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.
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)