Why Support "Officially Licensed" Merchandise? How Do I Know What's ACTUALLY Official?

With the popularity of individual fandoms, you don't have to search hard to find merchandise for the things you love anymore. Official t-shirts, figures, pins to stick in the window of your ita-bag -- anything goes!

But bootlegging is still alive and well. We're not talking about artist alley merchandise, or artist-exclusive products from RedBubble or Society6. Bootleg, or unofficial, merchandise is the knock-off stuff mass-produced and sold, usually on Amazon, eBaby, or even tee-a-day sites, to unsuspecting consumers or people who just don't care.

So why should you care? Isn't it easier to just get what you want? A dopey-eyed, lop-sided plushie made with no care isn't going to support the creators you love, that's why.

When you buy official merchandise, you're supporting creators and the people they trust to bring their visions to life. A significant amount of time, effort, and money goes into creating the products that they want you to love, and to make sure those products meet their rigid specifications.

Sometimes, an IP holder -- the parent company of a franchise -- with the time, means, money, and resources will create their own product. In many other cases, you're dealing with a product made by a smaller company, usually with capital of their own. By not supporting these smaller companies, you're denying often locally-sourced businesses, who may even be fans in their own right, the recognition and monetary compensation they deserve.

Both sides work together to determine what merchandise is made and how. These specifications are generally: where is the merchandise allowed to be sold (retail locations, conventions, online only, and what countries), what pricing it should be set at, how many items can be produced, and other less interesting specifications.  

This can take days, weeks, months or in the worst case scenario: years. Negotiations are a labor-intensive process that requires both sides to be on multiple phone calls and email threads both with each other and with their lawyers. In some cases, merchandise creators have to pay a fee to the IP holder to even begin making merchandise. This fee is a guarantee to the IP holder that even if the merchandise doesn't sell, they still profit.

So, how can you tell what is official merchandise and what is bootleg? While sometimes it's hard to know for sure there are some steps you can take to make sure you're supporting the creators properly.

If you're looking at a product in person:

  • Most licensed items have strict branding requirements. Does the branding on the item look legitimate? Does it state copyright information for the company that created the IP? Does it say "officially licensed"?
  • Is it being sold in a big box store? WalMart, Target, Hot Topic, and other massive retailers only purchase licensed goods these days, so if it's being sold in one of them chances are it's legitimate.
  • If you're at a convention, the people running a booth may not know (or in some less ideal cases, may say yes just to make a sale). Asking where they purchased the item from (if they didn't create it) is a great first step to determining.

If you're looking at purchasing a product online:

  • Avoid sites like eBay, Amazon and others where anyone can sell. These sites are great for other deals but most official retailers sell their items elsewhere. If the storefront link or seller name is the IP holder's, you can click their profile to verify it. Most resellers on these sites will increase the price two to three times what the actual cost of the product is, charging you more money than if you bought it from a verified vendor.
  • Avoid tee-a-day sites whenever possible for merchandise. These sites are great for artists to put their work up and get it out there for original items but very rarely is a design for a product actually going to benefit the creator of the IP. In many cases, it barely benefits the artist as they get very little of the income from the sale.
  • See if the site you're purchasing from is listed on the IP holder's website as a partner. For example, Bioware lists their partners here. Blizzard lists partnerships in the title, sometimes. Licensors like Fangamer will list copyright information in their product description which can be another indicator. If you ever aren't sure if a product is licensed, reach out to the IP holder! Most, if not all prefer that you purchase legal, approved goods from their vendors and should direct you to where/how you can purchase if their site doesn't list it already.

Any questions? Don't hesitate to reach out to us!

Edited by
Dana Rudnitsky
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1 comment

So I noticed you mentioned Redbubble in your article. Are they a legit place to purchase “rock band” merchandise??

Donna Coggeshall

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