Ask LH: Is It OK To Buy Bootleg Products?

Ask LH: Is It OK To Buy Bootleg Products?

Dear Lifehacker, Is it ever OK to buy replica/bootleg products? I’ll probably never spend $200 on sunglasses, $500 on headphones, $1500 on a handbag (or manbag), or $5000 on a watch. While I admire the aesthetics, I simply can’t justify the expense. Is this largely a victimless crime? After all, these companies aren’t losing me as a potential customer. Thanks, Bag Hunter

Shoe picture from Shutterstock

Dear BH,

This is the same rhetoric that software and video pirates use to excuse their illegal activities (i.e. — “if I have no intention of ever buying the product, that means the copyright owner hasn’t technically lost a sale. Ergo, I’m not stealing anything”). Of course, the reality is a lot more complex than that and the argument won’t hold up in court if a software company decides to come after you.

That said, copyright laws become harder to enforce when it comes to physical goods like clothes and sunglasses. In these situations, it can’t really be proved that the customer knowingly purchased goods from a bootlegger, whereas software piracy requires you to willfully seek out and download free content (the chief factor here is proof of intent).

In the case of the former, you could mount a plausible defense that you had no idea the stuff was counterfeit — perhaps you just thought it was on sale or didn’t realise the goods were imitating a premium brand. In most cases, the individual customer won’t be targeted by the manufacturer anyway; it’s simply not worth the effort.

So does this make it a victimless crime? Not exactly: if the World Customs Organization is to be believed, counterfeit fashion has resulted in the loss of nearly 400,000 jobs worldwide and billions of dollars in revenue over the past two decades. We’d naturally take those statistics with a huge grain of salt but the fact remains that cheap fakes clearly hurt legitimate businesses.

It’s also worth noting that most counterfeit goods are dirt-cheap for a reason. On a recent trip to Thailand, one of my friends picked up a bunch of bootleg DVDs and some counterfeit Ray-Ban sunglasses: around half of the DVDs didn’t work and the “Ray-Bans” literally fell to pieces after a few weeks of wear-and-tear. In other words, the main victim is usually the buyer.

You can find out more about copyright laws in Australia via the following articles:

Format Shifting 101: What Are Your Legal Rights In Australia?

How You’re Breaking The Law Every Day (And What You Can Do About It)

Busting Your Delusions About Content And Piracy


Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.


  • I agree that it is not a victimless crime. You’re the victim – a fashion victim! It’s really tacky to buy cheap fakes because inevitable they are cheap in every sense of the word. You’re better off buying well made goods from less expensive or unknown brands. Don’t be sheep. It’s way cooler.

    • Nonsense. You are not making the case that buying bootleg products is unwise, you are making the case that buying low quality goods is unwise. That is entirely irrelevant to this conversation.

      I should point out that you are misusing ‘fashion victim’ – a fashion victim is somebody who slavishly follows the whims of big fashion, even if it leads them to look like a goon. If the knockoffs are indeed copying the latest style, you are equally likely to be a fashion victim buying a $1,000 original as a $10 knockoff. Because they will both leave you looking like a fool.

  • Not an excuse, or a endorsement or anything, but what’s the difference between buying a $5000 handbag made for $2 in a sweatshop, to buying a $100 handbag that’s made for $2 in a sweatshop?

    This is pure generalization, of course.

  • bootlegs are a steep slippery down hill slope, buying a bootleg over the real deal is directly a sale lost to the real deal, doesn’t matter if you weren’t going to buy the real thing anyway, buying a cheaper knock off just supports that bootlegger and keeps them in business.

    Whilst it might not seem like its having any effect on big companies its the little people in those companies and the smaller companies as a whole that get hurt and eventually it will kill the product or company, a bootlegger with say 10 sales a week, means ten less products the real deal sells, you technically own that product, you didn’t buy a competitors product or simply not buy itat all, things easily accounted for in forecasts and so on, so they adjust their forecasts and find they dont need as many product makers anymore, bam, jobs lost.
    Then prices go up to account for the lost sales, eventually more people head to a cheaper product, bootleg or competition, the real deal stops selling the product or goes out of business trying to sell it.

    some people use the argument that at least the bootleg still gets the name out there, if 100 people are found to have the product even if half of them are bootlegs thats still 100 people spruking the product, whilst thats true in a sense, its rather hard for the company to base its next product run on those numbers, they dont know how many are bootlegs, how many will bootleg again or buy the real deal etc, its a murky area that muddies forecasting for businesses, especially since its illegal so theres no hard numbers to work off, such as there is for competitor sales for instance, plus bootlegs are 9 times out of ten considerably less quality, if 45 of those 50 people from before have there product fall apart in weeks rather then the months of the real deal, thats reflects directly on the perceived quality of the real deal

    That being said when it comes to fashion and bs like that where big companies hire the cheapest labour possible, pay a magazine to call it the latest rage and then selling it at ridiculous prices, you should simply not give them your money, dont even buy from the bootleggers, just because kim kardashian gets paid to like some handbag doesn’t mean anyone should pay $1000 for it.

    • > Buying a bootleg over the real deal is directly a sale lost to the real deal, doesn’t matter if you weren’t going to buy the real thing anyway

      In other news, 2+2=5, oranges are apples, and Melbourne is in Indonesia.

      Every single argument you make applies to buying any alternate product.

      You are making the case, without giving a reason why, for buying name brand things.

      But every so-called ‘harm’ you proscribe to bootlegs applies equally to buying any sort of cheaper alternative.

      That’s called capitalism. There are winners and losers. If a firm can’t produce a product at a price the market will pay, the workers will lose their jobs. You spent a lot of words to say very little.

    • “a bootlegger with say 10 sales a week, means ten less products the real deal sells… …find they dont need as many product makers anymore, bam, jobs lost.”

      So really the net labour required is the same. In fact it is more because:-

      “if 45 of those 50 people from before have there product fall apart in weeks rather then the months”

      so in effect what you are saying (if we are to believe your argument) is that 5 times as many jobs are created due to the increased labour requirements of people having to replace their shoddy purchases?

      You could argue that buying a premium product contributes to real sustainable living wages, but by your own story “That being said when it comes to fashion and bs like that where big companies hire the cheapest labour possible”. So again if we are to follow your argument only the fatcat middlemen and CEO’s are being deprived.

      The real issue here is that if prices were realistic, and there wasn’t the greed to make 1000% margin instead of a double digit gross profit, then there would be no need for bootleggers, and jobs would be sustainable and kept by more.

      I think you summed it up perfectly…. don’t buy either 🙂 But people still need products. Lets get back to reality on all sides….

  • Its not REALLY the same… I’d like to see a fashion designer spend millions and a year of their life designing a pair of sunglasses..

    as far as I’m concerned, you can’t trademark or copyright a shape and colour combo in ANY industry. The only thing that should be stopped is bootleggers branding it as the real thing. It can look identical but have a different brand marking or none at all..

  • Personally I don’t see the point in buying fakes. You know it’s not the real deal, and presumably you know the quality is poor, so why bother? Are you trying to impress someone? With what? A crappy knock off which they’ll most likely spot almost instantly? And if you are trying to impress someone, are they really worth impressing in the first place? Why not just save up and buy the real thing? Or buy a different brand altogether? Either way, you would have something of better quality than the fakes, which would only fall apart or break pretty quickly. Remember, you get what you paid for. It’s an old cliche, but it’s true. A knock off handbag, shoes, sunglasses, whatever won’t last as long as the real thing because the people making and selling the fakes don’t care about keeping consumers happy or building up a brand. They’re just looking to make some quick and easy money.

    • Because it’s cheap and it gets the job done. I am not cross shopping a $5 Gucci knockoff with a $1000 Gucci oringinal, I am cross shopping a $5 Gucci knockoff with another $5 item.

      Modern manufacturing has come very close to equalizing between price points; if you buy something that is 100 times more, you are not buying something that is 100 times better, you are just giving loads of money to some rich dudes in Europe.

    • Replica sports jerseys (specifically NBA and NHL) are way cheaper than the “real deal” and guess what? They are all made in the exact same factory. I’ve bought plenty of real, and replicas, and I can’t tell the difference. You just need to know which replicas to buy, because you can in fact get really shitty ones if you’re not careful.

  • Of course, anyone who has studied economics 101 knows that free markets only work properly when there are a wide range of homogenous products – in other words, multiple products which are indistinguishable from one another, so that the consumer is able to exercise their “vote” for the cheapest version thus ensuring that no producer/manufacturer can benefit from super profits.

    Funnily enough, most of the 1% are firmly in favour of a purely free market when it comes to labour, but strenuously opposed to a purely free market when it comes to selling their own product.

    The answer to one persons question further up, which was “what is the difference between buying a product that cost $2 to make but is on sale for $1000, or one that cost $2 to make is on sale for $100”, is simple. Restrictive trade practices and fake product differentiation is the difference.

    The fact that so many “fakes” exist are symbolic of the failure of western democracies to truly have a free market. While I would never encourage anyone breaking the law (flying spaghetti monster forbid), I do think they play a significant role in reducing the unfair monopoly power that a lot of “brand” name producers attempt to exercise through their creation of brand identities.

  • A bootlegged physical product is a far different beast to a pirated virtual product.

    With the physical product you are paying money to the bootleggers which is what keeps them in business, keeping sweatshops and the like in business, which in turn keeps the bootlegged things on the market hurting the original owner.

    Downloading a copy of something (assuming you don’t pay for it) doesn’t give the pirates a financial incentive to continue pirating.

    In both cases though if you like the product, and can pay for it, pay for it.
    If you can’t pay for it, and don’t need it, don’t get it.

    • There is some truth in what you say, but a couple points:

      1) If you buy a Nike product or any other high cost retail product, you are also supporting sweatshops. You are not giving more money to the factory worker buying $200 shoes at Westfield than you are buying $10 shoes from a small import shop. Your extra $190 is going to Nike shareholders and the retailer, not the factory worker.

      2) Even such, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because most sweatshop workers are happy to have some sort of job, and closing down the sweatshops would hurt them.

        • Sure, point taken. You are also paying a Nike executive’s salary, and those of other people in the Nike organization in Beaverton, Oregon, USA.

          And if you buy the knockoff, you are paying the lower salary of the manager in the factory, their own product designers, etc. in Shenzhou China or wherever.

          But, by definition, you are paying Nike shareholders, unless Nike is a money losing enterprise (it isn’t).

          So, would you rather the money went or pay an American’s salary?

          If the quality is equal (in running shoes, of course, it likely isn’t) the answer seems pretty clear to me.

          • The answer is pretty clear to me, I’d much rather my money went to the people and company that developed a product in the first place.

          • I mistyped, I meant to type ‘would you rather the money stayed in your pocket or went to pay an American’s salary?’

  • It is easy to convince yourself into thinking that counterfeit goods are a victimless crime; the common people retaliating against the corporate fat cats with no grasp on reality (one thousand dollars for a t-shirt?). The same faceless corporations who arbitrarily inflate prices in order to maintain their aura of prestige and exclusiveness, bombarding us with ubiquitous adverts claiming to be “about that life”. But as you delve into the underbelly of the beast, these multinational corporations are flesh and bone too. The factory workers, salespeople, janitors – they’re the ones losing out from counterfeiting, the ones with mouths to feed just like us. Bernard Arnault isn’t going to care you just bought a LV Speedy for fifty dollars. Nevermind, the large criminal syndicates often behind the mass production and distribution of counterfeit clothing you’re funneling money (fifty dollars at a time) to.

    If you really wanted to rebel against these conglomerates spewing pretentiousness and ostentation, just turn a blind eye to the fashion rat race. Or, buy a Zara knockoff. That’ll really piss them off.

    PS. With regards to replica watches, they are the epitome of ugliness. Swatch has just produced a factory made mechanical watch, so there is no excuse for buying a two dollar Rolex Daytona cum Deepsea hybrid with the wonky cyclops and all that’s wrong in life.

    • .. These people don’t run these industries because they’re throwing money away. In most cases they make a shit tonne for the actual amount of effort involved to create an item and marketing (etc) is the real challenge.

      Watches are a particular exception where there is a lot of craft involved.. But I don’t think anyone’s fooling anyone when a normally expensive mechanical watch is a complete fake, so who really cares.

      As for the “the large criminal syndicates often behind the mass production and distribution of counterfeit clothing”.. You make them sound like they would murder your mother for a purse, but quite often they’re networks of people trading failed quality tested items from sweatshops in their region where they’re forced to work for near slave wages. their crime being selling unlicensed merchandise. Oh my! Someone please call the police on these same people more than likely that they, or their families that get paid $1-5 a day to make that same items you believe their in most cases (if they’re at all successful enough to get bootlegged) multimillionaire owners apparently desperately need the revenue from.. If only they weren’t throwing it away because the stitching was dodgy in an area or the fabric was marked etc..

      Even if they ARE making the items in question themselves – which i’m sure many do… What’s this serious crime they’re responsible for, Trademark infringement? Don’t worry guys, we don’t have drinkable water but we better worry about Mr Versace’s bottom line above all else.

      Seems legit.

  • Buying a fake luxury handbag or watch isn’t going to rob the original maker of a sale. It’s not like someone buying a $5 watch in Asia will likely have the money to be buying a $5,000 watch.

    This isn’t about lost customers, it’s about the cheapening of the brand. If every man and his dog has a watch that says “Rolex”, that makes the brand feel very cheap and tacky now, even if 99.9% of them aren’t actually made by the company who owns the name “Rolex”.

    “Knock-off” DVD’s and Blu-Rays’s are a different story I feel. In this case the product CAN be replicated very easily. You can make a copy of a DVD with little equipment and it will be just as good as the original. Combine that with the fact DVD’s aren’t exactly super expensive to start with and you do start to question if this in fact was a lost sale.

    In any case, though, no you should not purchase “knock-off” products. Shady people run outfits like that, you’ve got a pretty good change of your money being filtered to criminal organisations. (Ignoring all the righteous people who proclaim brands are criminal organisations of course)

  • > We’d naturally take those statistics with a huge grain of salt but the fact remains that cheap fakes clearly hurt legitimate businesses.

    So you’re saying that the only available numbers come from a likely disreputable organization, but hey, they put up a pretty big number, so the real number must be something awfully big.

    Ace reporting, chaps.

  • A. “Stealing” is not the correct word to be applied to illegal file copying, nor to buying counterfeit products. It’s illegal, and probably morally wrong, but it certainly isn’t stealing.

    B. Copyright infringement and counterfeit products are COMPLETELY and utterly unrelated.

    C. If people who absolutely never would have bought the real thing are being blamed for job losses (!!!) then by the same crazy logic we can say people who ride buses or buy bicycles are causing job losses in the automotive industry. That’s absurd.

  • Every time I buy something with a wheel, am I ripping off the person who invented it? How come his/her idea can now be used by all these companies making products and they don’t have to pay anyone for such a brilliant revolutionary idea? Are all wheel based products just theft by another name?

    The person who designed the latest Nike shoe, is he getting a proportion of every subsequent shoe sold? Or did he get a salary, or one-off payment. The company which “owns” the design gets the benefit – practically in perpetuity given copyright laws these days.

    When someone else “steals” the design and financially benefits, the people losing out are not the actual designers, but the faceless corporation and it’s shareholders who did not design the product, they simply own the rights to it. So we should be asking, how much do we care that they get ripped off, and if we _do_ care, why exactly?

    If the factories making the product all employ workers, then buying it from another manufacturer doesn’t cost jobs, it simply transfers jobs to another place. The question to ask is does this make it better or worse? If it’s worse, why exactly? Do we know where Nike make their shoes, and are you certain that the conditions/pay/benefits for workers in that factory are better than the ones in the counterfeit producing factory?

    The argument always ends up being hijacked by spurious arguments about the poor workers jobs and what is “right”. When actually the argument is being made by people who don’t care about the “jobs” they just want to get the highest possible return for their investment.

    I don’t know of any of these massive corporations who go out of their way to employ as many people as they can, and to provide the best worker benefits, and the highest pay. They, like all the other big companies, are daily engaged in trying to minimise the number of employees required to manufacture their products, and minimise the expenses to ensure that the margin between cost and revenue is as high as possible.

    We only benefit from competition when competition is possible. Copyright, trademark, all those “laws” are designed to limit competition. They were usually introduced with sensible aims if protecting investment by researchers and ensuring innovation occurs, but as with all laws relating to commerce, they have slowly been captured by the powerful, moneyed, vested interests to restrict competition and maximise profit.

  • You’re really only cheating yourself with bootleg stuff. Say you buy a fake Rolex watch. If it’s because you want people to think you have a Rolex, that’s a pretty shallow opinion of yourself that the value you place on yourself is what other people think.

    Buying the legitimate thing is an acknowledgement to yourself on where you are in life. You earn the money, you can spend it any goddam way you please. You want that $5k watch – if you can afford it, go for it. If you can’t, then you haven’t made it yet – to buy a counterfeit is cheating your own success measurement. Whilst I’d love to buy an IWC watch, I know I can’t and refuse to buy a counterfeit because I would know it’s fake and my career status doesn’t really justify wearing the watch. I don’t care what other people think of what I have – I care about what I have.

    For anyone who buys counterfeit, just imagine your own work – if you think that counterfeit, bootlegged, or cheap crap are worthwhile, then you shouldn’t be surprised when your job is outsourced to some cheap labour overseas, because the buyer of your work thinks that you charge too much in labour cost (ie. you get paid too much) and they would prefer the cheap crap made in a sweatshop.

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