Ye-argh! Are ye in favour of them thar naughty pirates?

Wow, now here’s a subject rarely touched eh? Quite possibly one of the most hotly debated, often misguided, polarising and opinionated talking points that always rears it head like a bad smelling carousel carriage again and again without conclusion. It’s also one of these debates that seemingly divides communities – either by corporate commitment, brand loyalty or by community leaders intent on impressing their own values on its members. Either way, it’s a subject that can get people hot under the collar, and makes some say some really dumb things. So where do I stand on this? Let’s chuck some opinion in the mix.

Let’s start off with some personal, but generally agreed definitions.

A ‘knock-off’ or ‘bootleg’ (a term I will use interchangeably) is a copy of an original kit or a kit produced from an unlicensed design made and sold without permission.

A third-party kit on paper is an original production, based off an original design licensed from another company, to the company producing it – however it can be kit’s with slightly modified design on a short-run from the original, without license. This one is the ‘grey’ area so I’ll deliberately dodge writing about it.

Resin kits, and conversion kits are not really a cause for debate in this since they’re not a concern of the original manufacturer, and on very short runs. You do after all, need a Bandai kit first before you can create the conversion for instance.

When I refer to an ‘original’ I mean a product entirely designed and produced legitimately, and legally by a company such as Bandai, Kotobukiya or Tamiya.

Zoom out for a second at look at the bare facts before we move into the arguments. Selling copies of an original product, without permission, is illegal and in breach of international copyright rules. It’s exactly the same as selling pirated DVDs. Buying these copies for yourself is also illegal. Yes. It is illegal. The same as how downloading a torrented movie is illegal to give a better analogy.

Now let’s look at the arguments. A vast majority of those opposed to bootlegs will always cite the legality and quality of bootlegs, and it’s destructive nature towards legitimate producers. Knock-offs and some bootlegs are produced using a far cheaper process, using cheaper and inferior materials and labor in order to cut costs. With these kit’s being so cheap, they can potentially cut into the sales of the original producer. It also harms future development. If an original producer loses money on a project due to inferior copies (or even better-imagined versions) flooding the market, then the original producer has less money to potentially invest in future projects – or be willing to sell their products in a particular region at a reasonable price.

Those in favor of knock-off’s and bootlegs can counter some of these arguments. If the original producer sells their kits at seemingly outlandish  prices – the copycats and bootleggers are doing them a favour by making them more accessible, and cheaper to those with less money – it can also make the original kits more desireable. It also allows more experienced modellers to effectively ‘practice’ new ideas on kit’s without having to fork out twice – or have a bank of spare parts available that are ferociously hard to replace using the ‘Japan-only’ parts re-ordering service. It can also be argued too, that the sales of knock-off’s and bootlegs are a drop in the ocean compared to the turnovers of a multi-million dollar company like Bandai – and it’s infringements are so undervalued that Bandai rarely attempts any legal action to halt production of bootlegs, or take any serious PA action to warn consumers. The ‘P-Bandai’ kits also do not help the situation. Limiting the availability of special runs of kits of an entirely domestic market causes huge inflations in costs to those external to Japan, not doing a whole lot of good for brand loyalty.

So where do I stand in this? Well, I’m an empirical fellow – but I am also pro-choice. I know what I am buying, and I know most other people do too.

I think that, if you make a product that is amazing, and someone else then makes a blatant copy of it that is inferior – you really don’t have much to worry about, but when it becomes fraudulent (ie. making the box look exactly the same in order to charge the same price as the original) is becomes criminal, and morally wrong. What Daban or TT Hong Li are doing right now are blatant copies of an original, and you should seriously not be stupid enough to think it’s anywhere near being as good as the real thing and should not have any trouble knowing that when you purchase it. If I buy say, an iPhone and it’s called an iPhoonie, I know it’s going to bear a resemblance to an iPhone, but it’s definitely not, an iPhone. Real free-market capitalism relies on a simple fact – you get better sales when you make a better product – and Bandai are way out in front of the competition. However, the bootleggers are gathering speed and interest in area’s Bandai are failing to address.

I think the original kit manufacturers are well aware of this fact. Japanese companies, as huge and as corporate as they are, are proud of the products they produce, and  don’t pay a lot of attention to the copycats and bootleggers unless there is an awfully high demand or interest in a particular bootlegged product. This recently played out when Elyn produced the highly sought after 1/100 plastic injection molded Kshatriya model and Bandai filed for copyright infringement, limiting the company to domestic sales only – on the basis that it could be produced on a much larger scale. Elyn now does not exist.. and Mechanicore has arrived on the scene. I’ll let you put 2 and 2 together here.

When it comes to buying knock-offs, third party or bootlegs kits, it’s entirely your own choice. I have bought a couple of knock-offs and bootlegs myself, and unsurprisingly they are shit – but the point is I knew they would be. I have also paid out far, far more cash to get a kit that I know will be up to a good standard, from Bandai, and I would say most people know these facts. I also have bought kits that just have never been produced by Bandai, based off designs Bandai own. Why? Becuase Bandai have not done it yet.. and I wanted it.

In a nutshell, I am either for or against bootleg kits. I just accept it for the reality that everything is copied, reverse-engineered and knocked-off these days because hey – if you can make it cheaper and sell it, it’ll happen – especially in places where copyright law is overlooked. I will buy the better product. I will buy, a bad quality product to suit another need where quality is not a requirement. Simple. Is it an insult to original designers? Yes. Is it down to me to champion them? No. It’s likely they’ll get my money first anyway. It’s also a fact that people will identify gaps in the market. Is Bandai making a 1/100 version of this great design? Then let’s make one and make some dough.

The strong actions and comments from more opinionated individuals running and participating communities I find dense – especially without reason. I can wholeheartedly understand the commitment to an original product line if say, the community is for Bandai products only – or has a business or organisational interest in Bandai. It seems that in some places if I say ‘I buy knock-offs’ it’s the equivalent of saying ‘I punched your mum in the face’. The visceral negative response from some folks is worrying at times, and often I might add quite amusing. Still, they stick out like a sore thumb so are easy to avoid. My response to the anti-bootleg position is simple. Can you seriously tell me you have no possessions that are a copy of an original product? It’s the reality of consumerism, and it’s not something that will go away with a few insults to someone who has decided to buy one or advocates their existence. On the flip-side there are also those who accuse others of being ‘Bandai-snobs’ for even making the comment that bootlegs and knock-offs are inferior quality. Well, that’s actually a more o a fact than a statement, and I suggest these people do a little less shooting from the hip before they lose a toe – which can be frightfully embarrassing.

Whatever your position, the reality is unavoidable – unless of course the entire consumer base unanimously rejects and upholds copyright laws by simply not purchasing. Do you ever see that happening? So why even champion either position? Your thoughts?

Special thanks to John for providing me with some very useful factoids and opinionoids.