So, I suggested this week’s topic for The League of Extraordinary Bloggers, “Bootlegs, knockoffs, and third-party products.”
My original suggestion was “third-party toys, yay or nay,” and my main reason for even suggesting it was as a way to get me to finally write this editorial that’s been rattling around in my brain for a while.
My plan was simply to write an editorial providing my opinion on third-party toys, specifically third-party Transformers – both full transforming robot toys and add-ons. But despite how much I’ve thought about it, I’m having a difficult time deciding what my stance is.
The reasons against third-party Transformers are fairly obvious. It’s a theft of Hasbro’s intellectual property; these manufacturers are making a profit (however small that profit may be) off something owned by Hasbro. Even if they’re not directly stealing the toy itself (i.e., making bootlegs or knock-offs from the toys themselves), they’re stealing the character or design and making money from it. Hasbro’s own staff have occasionally spoken ill of third-party toys (there was some sort of Twitter kerfuffle as I recall, but I wasn’t able to find it online). Last year Hasbro banned the sale of third-party toys at Botcon.
In terms of high-profile advocates of one side or the other: David Willis, the cartoonist behind Shortpacked and Web-ubiquitous Transformers fan, considers third-party TF toy creators thieves. On the other hand (maybe?), here’s what Phil Reed of Battlegrip, who produced the third-party Transformers photo book Transforming Collections, had to say about it in my interview with him last year:
I’m kinda torn on these. On the one hand, some of them are major copyright violations and I can’t see how Hasbro/Takara have allowed these to exist. But, on the other hand, there are some unofficial Transformers toys that are amazing works that are far superior to Hasbro’s work. I think the accessories, replacement heads, and sticker sets are all something we can think of like automotive after-market add-ons, but those complete robot toys are absolutely crossing lines every now and then.
The toys are also extremely expensive, and not always because of the quality. In fact, I’ve picked up some that were not very good, but the different companies producing these toys have rabid fans who defend the work regardless of the actual quality so there are times when my comments and reviews attract harsh attention from fans. I think in the end these help Hasbro/Takara, but I suspect that it’s only a matter of time until we see some of the companies brought down by legal action . . . some of the unofficial toys really do go too far in the “violate copyright” realm.
This third-party fan’s editorial is quite lengthy and ranges into a lot of interesting topics, but in the end it come down to this:
I think I feel morally comfortable with third-party TFs because I do not feel that they are stealing from Hasbro anymore than copying a CD is stealing from the artist or record company.
Well, copying a CD is stealing from both the artist and the record company, so all the writer is saying here is, “I think I feel morally comfortable with this particular level of stealing.”
Of course I copied CDs as a teenager, and may even occasionally do it now, although only in cases where I can’t easily get the songs online. But both then and now, I knew it wasn’t the “moral” thing to do. It didn’t bother me all that much then, but nowadays, on the rare occasions that I do it, I tend to feel bad about it – some of my relatives are musicians trying to make a living from it. If I copy a CD, it’s from an already-successful band. Again, this isn’t so much about “shades of gray” – there’s no moral ambiguity here – as it is degrees.
I asked my friend John about the third-party toy question recently, because while he’s not a toy collector, he has a business degree and always has an interesting perspective on this sort of thing. While he understood and agreed that the toys were illegal, he suggested that Hasbro may view them as free market research. The popularity of various third-party toys (or lack thereof) reveal to Hasbro what fans are most interested in, which can then use to guide their own creations.
I don’t know enough about Transformers to cite any obvious examples of this happening, but my hunch is that Hasbro’s recent focus on big gestalts and the giant Metroplex may have been partially inspired by third-party efforts. That said, I’m not keen to assume Hasbro views third-party toys as market research with some evidence to back up the idea.
So..I don’t know. Third-party Transformers based on existing characters – and maybe even the add-ons – are illegal. And so you might say, “Well then why hasn’t Hasbro sued them all out of existence?” It’s possible many of them are such small operations that Hasbro doesn’t even know where to find them. It’s possible the production runs are so small, Hasbro doesn’t think it’s worth the effort. It’s possible Hasbro really does see them as free market research. Or maybe it’s as simple as Hasbro figuring the third-party manufacturers help keep the most demanding, vocal TF fans off their backs.
The longer this all goes on, though – and the more third-party Transformers that appear in the catalogs of major online retailers like BigBadToyStore – makes me wonder why Hasbro hasn’t started up the lawsuits.
Anyway, my final thought: selling third-party TFs based on Hasbro-owned characters is definitely illegal, and if you think it’s stealing and if you consider stealing immoral, it’s immoral as well. Of course, intellectual property itself is a weird, fairly recent concept that’s still being worked out in both the legal system and philosophically, so who knows where this will all come down in the future.
I hesitate to say I’d never buy a third-party toy, and who knows, maybe if I did I’d find a way to twist through some philosophical hoops to rationalize it as this writer did. We humans really, really don’t like it when something we want to do – or especially, something we’ve already done – is judged “wrong” (either by others or by our own secret conscience), and so we rationalize everything from cheating on diets to ethnic cleansing.
Nonetheless, in response to my original question, my conscience forces me – for now, anyway – to come down on the side of “nay.”
What do you think?
Since the topic given to the League was more broad, most people aren’t writing about third-party Transformers but bootlegs and knock-offs. Obviously, that’s a lot more fun than my meandering treatise above. Here are a few examples:
Visit this link and check the comments for more entries.
 Obviously this doesn’t apply to original transforming characters or toys. While these may share obvious DNA with Transformers, if the design isn’t based on a pre-existing Hasbro-owned design, then there’s no moral or legal problems or ambiguities.
 Although their legal department seems to be pretty adept at tracking people down.
 I think my favorite breakdown of this tendency can be found on the Stuff White People Like blog: #93 Music Piracy. I was reading this aloud to a friend, and as I started reading it, he cut me off and started in on something about how musicians really make their money from touring. I then read the next sentence: “He will likely rattle off statistics about how most musicians don’t make any money from albums, it all comes from touring and merchandise.” This friend of mine buys entire albums for $2 off some Russian website. Pretty sure the artists never see a penny of that.