Why Is Knockoff Stuff Bootleg?

(Last Updated On: June 19, 2022)

Buying luxury goods is pretty hard for most people. Mostly because they’re super expensive and inflation is rising way faster than wages. So realistically those foods are getting super hard to simply afford. But let’s entertain the idea of affording super expensive, luxury clothes or handbags (maybe both!). It’s nice, isn’t it? Even then though, we now have to contend with sifting through all sorts of knockoff listings. These listings bring us to what you probably call all these products: bootleg. But why is knockoff stuff bootleg?

Further Reading: Why Do We Call Bad Cars Lemons?

Wait, there’s a difference between fake and bootleg?

You probably intuitively use the terms “fake” and “bootleg” correctly in conversation–even if you can’t really put your finger on what the exact difference is. Buying and selling on the internet has ushered us into the realm of counterfeit goods. Even on juggernaut platforms like Amazon, many listings are actually from third-party sellers–many of which are also fake. While that is super annoying, it’s not the same thing as a bootlegged product. There’s actually a legal distinction.

A fake product is exactly what you think it is. It’s when you get something that is simply pretending to be something else. It’s ordering what you thought was a Gucci bag and having it fall apart when you get it in the mail–or finding out the logo is actually printed backwards. These fakes are more technically called counterfeit goods, an industry that has grown over 10,000% over the last 20 years. A counterfeit is made to render the original irrelevant by selling itself under the name of the original brand. This is, obviously, illegal in the USA. It’s not going to be legal in any system that has a concept of intellectual property, really. 


Knockoffs (or bootlegs) on the other hand are not disguised copies. They may be of lower quality like a counterfeit, but they’re not the same as buying an iPhone and getting something else instead. A knockoff is made to confuse the consumer, it’s more like getting an eyePhone and hoping the buyer won’t realize it’s different until it’s too late. Where counterfeits seek to explicitly deceive, a knockoff aims to confuse. It’s a very pedantic difference that isn’t going to make you feel any better when you waste your money. That’s why knockoffs are still legally dubious. It doesn’t do any favors to knockoffs when to confuse buyers they often have to violate other trademarks. 

The key thing is that a knockoff does not purport to be something it isn’t. It just gets as close to it as possible while still being able to plausibly claim it’s something else. 

But why are they called bootlegs?

Drawing lines in the sand doesn’t really help us get to the key question of bootlegs, though. Honestly, the difference between knockoff and counterfeit doesn’t really matter to the average person anyway–you’re going to be annoyed either way.

Headiness aside, let’s look at the term bootleg. It’s been around in the literal sense for a long time–it used to mean the “upper part of a boot”. By the 19th century, “bootlegging” had become a verb. It referred to rum-running, and likely originated during the American Civil War. Booze would be smuggled by soldiers in their boots. So it’s still literal, they were literally smuggling goods in their bootlegs. This term persisted through American Prohibition. 

Bootlegging would later be applied to consumer goods in the mid-to-late 1900s. The transition can probably be owed to the weight of American Prohibition, any kind of illicit good was simply caught under the Prohibition banner. So the jump from alcohol to products was pretty quick. Specifically, it would emerge out of the recording industry. Bootleg recordings are recordings of some kind of performance that isn’t officially released by the performance’s rightsholder. Most simple definition: it’s when someone uploads a cell phone video of a Broadway show. 

While not having been assigned the term “bootleg,” the idea of recording a performance illicitly apparently dates back to Shakespearean theatre, where people would publicize transcripts of plays. 

Spot some fake movie titles and stuff here.



About Kyler 707 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.