Bootleg Products and the Defiance of Value

Growing up in New York City, bootleg products have always been a common sight. Whether it’s Louis Vitton bags, cashmere scarves, DVDs, or even plastic anime models, one could easily find a lower-cost (and lower-quality) version of whatever “big thing” was out there. Given that these products are often shoddily made, violate intellectual property rights, and in some cases actually fund organized crime, it’s very understandable why the official companies whose products are being bootlegged would take umbrage with the existence of knock-offs. However, putting aside the questions of both legality and quality, I’ve begun to wonder if bootleg products serve a certain function in a consumerist, capitalist, and image-driven society.

I recently read the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a memoir about growing up as a hillbilly in Appalachia. At one point, Vance mentions how many hillbillies are very bad at properly budgeting their money, and they will use their welfare checks to buy expensive products like smartphones and cars instead of for necessities. This is also a common story among people in the inner city, and in Korea they have a term: doenjang girl, or someone who cuts out essentials so they can buy luxury items. In all of these cases, there’s more to this behavior than simply trying to cheat the government, or starve oneself. In actuality, it has a lot to do with trying to chase the image of prosperity, to live as a “have” even if one is a “have-not.”

To state a truism, expensive things are expensive. They add up. The role of bootleg products, then, is that they allow people who cannot afford (or do not want to buy) the products the full price to at least obtain a facsimile. Sales, discounts, and even big box stores all fall along this general trend, but rarely can they compete with the rock-bottom prices of bootlegs because they’re beholden to things like laws and standards. If expensive, name-brand goods carry with them the image of success and fine living, then bootlegs are the shortcut that allows someone with less to access that fantasy without having to sacrifice everything else. Of course, many of these products are luxuries and therefore unnecessary. However, because of how much people value image and social capital, they can become more important than even food and shelter in a certain sense.

There are two different types of consumers of bootleg products: those who know they’re buying bootlegs and those who don’t. The latter are more uninformed victims. I know I’m not the only one who bought those “Son May” anime CDs back in the day, and the counterfeit Nendoroids keep improving their box designs to fool people. For the former, the surface image presented by someone who can show to the world (and to themselves) a version of oneself as living a “properly prosperous lifestyle” is enough.

Things are a little different when it comes to digital products, such as streaming anime or movie torrents. Strictly speaking, one does not wear or display their illegal streaming site episodes like one would a bootleg necklace, but there is a certain gain in “knowledge” and “status” as a result of consuming these products. Watching Game of Thrones through “alternative means” allows someone who wouldn’t be able to keep up with the buzz surrounding that series and thus keep up with conversations concerning GoT. On the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell, that, the hosts discuss the concept that scans of comics allow a greater number of people to become experts on comics because it reduces the economic barrier to that amount of knowledge. [Unfortunately I can’t remember the episode, if anyone knows, please tell me!]

Regardless of the ethics of buying counterfeit products, bootlegs (even ones that are not physical), carry consequences beyond simply the damage they cause to creators and owners. They act as shortcuts to public image, emotional satisfaction (in terms of living the “proper” lifestyle), and even expertise. As a result, for better or worse they defy the prices for products set by companies and proprietors, while also reinforcing the images of those products as premium items.

“Why Spend Money on Entertainment?”

Let me tell you a guy I know.

This guy makes quite a bit of money. He enjoys fancy cars and spending on expensive jewelry and fine clothing. He’ll take his girlfriend and friends and family out to fine restaurants. He is a big spender, in other words. By the way, he also downloads movies for free. Now, he still buys DVDs sometimes, but he’s just as apt not to, and the decision to purchase or not to purchase a movie seemingly alters at a whim.

You might be thinking, “If he makes so much money, why couldn’t he just go watch the movie in theaters? Why can’t he just buy the DVD?” And the answer is quite simple: he does not value movies as much as he does all of the things he actually does spend money on.

And this is the trickier side in talking about issues such as piracy and illegal downloading. People assign value to their entertainment that is fitting to their lifestyle and priorities in life. The person in my example does not skimp on everything. It’s not like a person who buys a counterfeit designer bag and then buys a bootleg DVD. He is willing to pay for real, good fashion. He is still looking for a bargain, but will not go as far as to buy something that isn’t “real,” again, because he believes in something beyond appearance.

This guy is not an avid pirate and bootlegger, as I’ve pointed out. He is not an anime fan eager to watch as much as possible for as little as possible. He is a casual fan of movies at best. And so if you wanted him to spend money on his entertainment, it would have to somehow fit into his core values about what is worth spending money on and what is not. And he, unlike the anime fan or audiophile or cinema buff, is part of the majority of people who consume entertainment.

How do you solve this problem? Take away his ability to download and pirate, and he’ll just wait for movies to appear on cable and watch them there. He’s still not going to be willing to part with his money over it. It’s easy to say, “Hey let’s just make a movie that he’d be willing to spend money on,” but as long as he de-emphasizes entertainment media in his life, there’s no way it’s going to reach him.