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A knockoff is a product similar or identical to a product of one company, but made by another without the authorization of the original maker. In the Transformers fandom, the term is commonly abbreviated KO. The term bootleg is also sometimes used as a synonym.
What's a knockoff?
Not all transforming robots from makers other than Hasbro, Takaratomy, Bandai, or other major toy makers are knockoffs, but those toys which wholly or partly duplicate pre-existing designs are well-qualified for the term. The term is also applied by fans, however, to some robots whose design was entirely original with the manufacturer, if said manufacturer is commonly associated with knockoffs, or if this maker's products are often sold in company with knockoffs.
Whether an original design, modified, or slavishly copied, knockoffs are often cheaper than the products of major toymakers. However, the quality of knockoffs is often poorer than that of the originals, including bad plastic quality, bad sticker application, and bad paint applications. Odd colors, excess chrome, resizings, and modifications are common. The world of knockoffs is a strange land of gigantic chromed swords, Gundam card art, and wacky packaging translations.
Legal analysis of knockoffs
Despite myths to the contrary, most Transformers knockoffs are illegal. In HASBRO BRADLEY, INC. v. SPARKLE TOYS, INC., 780 F.2d 189 (2nd Cir. 1985), the Second Circuit granted an injunction on Sparkle Toys' Jumpstarter knockoffs, where Hasbro showed a likelihood of success for infringement of their copyright in the Jumpstarters toys. For those not law literate, this basically means that (A) Hasbro held a valid copyright in the Jumpstarters, and (B) Hasbro had a strong enough case that this would have gone to a jury, which would ultimately decide whether there was infringement.
Although Hasbro and Takara's design patents on Transformers toys expire after 14 years from issuance, their copyright in Transformers toys lasts for 95 years from publication, i.e., sale to the public. Thus, while the design patents on some Transformers toys have expired, the copyright protection on all Transformers toys is still in effect. For useful articles, such as a reconfigurable toy, copyright protects only those expressive elements that are separable from the function. While a transformation is probably not protectable because it is functional, the overall look of the robot or alternate mode is protectable. Thus, while a heavily remolded knockoff that only retains the transformation of the original toy may avoid infringement, a toy that is only resized or is only painted in different colors would infringe Hasbro and Takara's copyright regardless of the slight modification.
Availability of knockoffs
Through most of the 1990s, knockoffs were relatively difficult to find in the West. Many fans had luck finding them at flea markets, hole-in-the-wall non-chain toy stores, or discount stores like Big Lots!. Some knockoff transforming robot toys did show up in chain toy stores, such as the Convert-A-Bots Sky Garry and Tek Toys Voltron I—both widely available at Toys R Us—but they were few and far between.
In the 2000s, knockoffs became more accessible. The Kidi Toys gestalt knockoffs were widely available at Family Dollar and Kay Bee Toy Liquidator stores, and saturated eBay. Happy Well knockoffs took up shelf space next to Transformers Armada toys at Wal-Mart. And of course, the realistic counterfeit G1 toys also are widely available on eBay from any number of different sellers.
Hasbro's intervention (or lack thereof)
To date, Hasbro apparently has taken few actions against knockoff manufacturers. Only a couple of cases exist from the 1980s in which Hasbro shut down a Transformers knockoff operation, and no such cases exist from the 1990s onward. Hasbro's Transformers design director Aaron Archer was once quoted as making a comment at BotCon implying that Hasbro was unconcerned with knockoffs. Strangely, Hasbro recently contacted small online toy store AgesThreeAndUp and told them to take down their knockoff listings. At BotCon 2008, Greg Lombardo read an official Hasbro policy discouraging fans from purchasing knockoffs—even in the main dealer room just a few yards away—and vaguely threatening future legal action against their producers.
Certain knockoff companies have earned reputations via their rather distinctive ways of altering the original product:
- Four Star - Known during the 1980s for taking any number of Diaclone-descendant Generation One molds and making massive retools of them, usually changing 75% of the mold or more. They are especially known for "Mr. Hardhat", a Devastator bootleg that is made up of six entirely changed Constructicons that combine in an entirely different way. The fully combined form uses Jetfire's head.
- Tek Toys - A North American company that appeared in the early to mid-1990s and did business almost exclusively through Toys "R" Us. They pioneered the combination card/windowless box design used by many, many bootlegs to this day. Tek Toys also used a distinctively plain graphics style on their packaging, eschewing the usual random Gundam and Generation One graphics for new airbrushed art or, surprising for a knockoff company, CGI models, almost always against a plain white background. Tek Toys also worked in extremes, either having recolored copies of existing figures or all new original figures that may or may not have been procured from smaller Asian companies (oftentimes Leader Shine). In a bold move, Tek Toys' had their office address printed on later boxes. Their new box graphics are still recycled by other knockoff companies to this day.
- Leader Shine (AKA Champion Crown) - Known during the 1990s for bootlegging the living hell out of the Jumpstarter molds, producing clones, minor retools, major retools, and almost unrecognizable retools. They also produce "original" toys whose transformation schemes are derived from either Transformers, the Brave series, and Power Rangers. They still release new and varied Jumpstarters to this day. Leader Shine is also responsible for the very Godzilla-themed knockoff of Grimlock that reappears every few years. They also have an amusing habit of putting "Pat. P." (Patent Pending) on almost all of their packages in spite of whether their product is a direct copy or completely changed. It is not known how many, if any, patents Leader Shine actually holds.
- Happy Well - Currently the most well known knockoff company, Happy Well was bold enough to strike a contract with Wal*Mart, CVS Pharmacies, and Walgreens, making them possibly the first company to have a knockoff "name brand", namely the "Galaxy Defender" series. Happy Well uses relatively high-quality materials, and most of their products are boxed. Some even come with sticker sheets and die-cast parts. Their "Roadbots" line is the only direct competitor to the Alternators line of licensed scale transforming cars.
- Zhong Jin, aka Playcenter - The first and primary manufacturer of the high-quality counterfeit Generation One knockoffs. Zhong Jin has been making their counterfeit Transformers since 2005, starting with Beachcomber, but in 2007 began greatly increasing their range of counterfeit Generation One knockoffs, which now includes Optimus Prime, many minibots, several Decepticon cassette 2-packs, almost all the Dinobots,several Autobot cars, Devastator, and Gnaw. They have also done many plastic/paint variants of their knockoffs, including many clear plastic versions.
- Kidi Toys - Perhaps best known as the manufacturer of the many low-quality Generation One gestalt gift sets. Following Zhong Jin's lead, they recently began producing realistic counterfeit Generation One knockoffs. So far, they have created knockoffs of Metroplex and Metrotitan, both of which come in a Metroplex box. They both can be distinguished from the originals because of slightly different plastic colors. Among their other notable knockoffs are Alternator figures with new or copied paint schemes of reasonable quality.
- Citi Toys - Based in Thailand, the same company that was producing toys for McDonald's Happy Meals was also producing knockoffs of transforming robots, albeit mostly Brave and Power Rangers. After news leaked out that they used child labor, new knockoffs with their "CT" logo stopped appearing, which suggests that the child labor scandal caused them to shut down.
Countries that produce or once produced knockoffs
Most knockoffs originate outside of North America and Europe. Although most knockoff-producing countries have joined the Berne Convention and have thus obligated themselves to protect the copyrights of other countries, lax enforcement has allowed manufacturers in many foreign countries, such as China, to continue to produce knockoffs. However, manufacturers in other countries like South Korea, which was once a huge source of knockoff Transformers, have in the last decade made efforts to legitimized themselves by buying the rights to produce official Korean versions of the toys they had long been copying.
- China — The main source of the world's Transformers knockoffs and notorious for their use of gigantic blister cards. Although they are typically low quality, such as the combiner gift sets produced by Kiddi Toys, it is also the home of Playcenter, the high quality counterfeit Generation One toy manufacturer. China has signed the Berne Convention obligating them to protect foreign copyrights, and has enacted legislation to do so, but their enforcement remains at a pitifully weak level.
- South Korea — Was once a hotbed of Transformers knockoff activity. It was not uncommon in South Korea for there to even be animated series that incorporated multiple knocked-off properties, such as Reflector fighting a Gundam or any other number of famous characters. Hilariously, "Gundam" was so embedded in the South Korean public psyche as a synonym for "giant robot" via these different bootleg outlets that the Gundam property owner Sunrise's attempts to trademark the word were entirely rejected by the courts. Some Korean knockoff manufacturers took great liberties with Transformers molds, such as significantly increasing their size, and/or retooling their alt modes to resemble completely different vehicles. South Korea is known for such knockoffs as oversized Combaticons, Overlord with Starsaber's face, multiple Power Master Optimus cab knockoffs, and the white Oversized Generation 2 Optimus Prime (the legitimacy of which has been debated). Since the mid-/late-1990s, South Korea has begun enforcing foreign copyrights and is no longer a major source of knockoff Transformers toys.
- Taiwan — Known for knockoffs with a lot of English text on them and higher quality than Chinese knockoffs. Many Taiwanese knockoffs found their way into Italy in the 1980s and 1990s and can often be spotted on Italian eBay. Gig, the official Transformers licensee in Italy, even imported a Taiwanese knockoff Shockwave. Like South Korea, Taiwan is no longer a major source of knockoffs.
- Philippines — Many continuities were knocked off for low prices. Many of which were poor repaints, with alterations of transformation steps and poorly-designed packaging. 2007 movie Barricade had his whole legs be the rear part of the alt mode. He was painted with red and blue colors. Scavenger's body structure differed and the formation of parts differed. The green and purple color scheme was omitted and each had their own colour schemes. But the most dangerous of all was that the plastic used was more brittle. Cybertron Jetfire's waist can be snapped of permanently and 2007 movie Bumblebee's arms can be ripped off.
Although remarkably rare, some knockoff companies eventually venture into legitimate toy design territory. One such example is Trendmasters, which reproduced a number of Transformers, Power Rangers, and Leader Shine designs without a license for various store chains in the early 1990s. Said company later came into possession of several movie and television tie-in licenses in the later 1990s, including such big names as Voltron. It is possible that Happy Well might also follow this lead, given their success with the original Roadbots figures and subsequent shift away from their bootleg roots.
Another such company was Korean knockoff manufacturer Academy. Academy is known for releasing the Overlord knockoff with Star Saber's head as well as the huge, up-sized Gundam Cloth MK-II. Academy has since gone legit, legally acquiring such licenses as Gundam, Naruto, Tom and Jerry, and Zoids.
High Quality Generation One Counterfeits
Starting around 2005, high quality Generation One knockoffs began to appear on eBay. Originating from a company called Zhong Jin in China, both the packaging and toy of the knockoffs look nearly identical to the original. Unlike normal knockoffs, these sell for remarkably high prices. Since 2005, many counterfeit Generation One products have surfaced from Zhong Jin, including Optimus Prime, minibots, cassettes, Autobot cars, Devastator, Dinobots, and Gnaw. Zhong Jin also has produced many color and plastic variants of their knockoffs, such as translucent versions, which were never previously released (and some of which that were, like Jafcon Black Optimus Prime).
Recently a second knockoff company, Kidi Toys, has begun producing high quality Generation One counterfeits as well, starting with Metroplex and Metrotitan. Fans of the knockoffs have complained that the box quality on these two releases is not as high as Zhong Jin's knockoffs and the color of the plastic is off. On the other hand, these knockoffs are much cheaper than the Zhong Jin counterfeits, and priced on par with Takaratomy reissues.
The counterfeit Generation One toys remain extremely controversial because they are virtually indistinguishable from the originals. This situation raises concerns about unscrupulous dealers selling bootlegs as genuine articles and scrupulous ones unknowingly doing the same.
Counterfeit Generation One parts, stickers, and boxes have appeared from Zhong Jin as well, including many that have not had a corresponding whole knockoff released, including Soundwave boxes, Aerialbot guns, and Fortress Maximus sticker sheets.
The counterfeit Generation One toys are often confused with the legitimate Hasbro-made re-releases for the Chinese market produced from 1989 through 1995. (See below.)
The Movie Effect
Since the release of the 2007 Transformers movie, a flood of bootlegged figures has entered the market, with some movie line figure knockoffs appearing within a month of the official product's debut. The figures range from high-quality clones to very low-quality copies and strange variations, such as random Generation One figures being redone in movie paint decos (usually Optimus Prime's flame scheme).
Myths about knockoffs
Over the years, there have been a lot of widespread myths about knockoffs. Perhaps the most preposterous myth is that knockoffs are legal. See the Legal Analysis section above for why this theory is incorrect. Although few proponents of this theory exist, those that do claim vigorously that the presence of knockoffs on Family Dollar or Wal-Mart's shelves means that those products must be legitimate. The flaw in the reasoning here is that it assumes big chain stores would never do anything ignorantly or illegally, which is certainly not the case.
One long-held myth among fans (due to a general lack of information), is that the Generation One Transformers with Chinese stickers in the corner are high-quality counterfeits. After all, they look just like the original Generation One releases, but with some very small differences and oftentimes slightly inferior plastic quality. Recently, though, it's come out that these were, in fact, re-releases for the Chinese market produced from 1989 through 1995, not unlike their Chinese G.I. Joe counterparts from around the same period. Ironically, high-quality counterfeit Generation One toys from China would eventually come out, but it wouldn't be until 2005, a decade later.
A new record
A bootlegging company just recently released a knockoff of Transformers Animated Voyager Earth-mode Optimus Prime, weeks before the release of the original. This knockoff has almost the same color scheme as the original, though with a few obvious differences. There have also been cases of Alternators-sized knockoffs of Bumblebee.
- ↑ http://www.law.cornell.edu/copyright/cases/780_F2d_189.htm
- ↑ Zhong Jin/Playcenter was first identified as the manufacturer of the knockoffs in September 2007, when fans noticed pictures of most of the current counterfeit G1 knockoffs on their Alibaba supplier website, including then-upcoming counterfeits like Warpath. Apparently aware of this, Zhong Jin took down images of all their counterfeit Transformers from the website in October or November.
- ↑ Kidi Toys' web site
- ↑ http://www.comipress.com/article/2006/10/28/938 Gundam and Giant Robots in South Korea
- ↑ http://web.archive.org/20080328110422/www.geocities.com/scrambledcity/skorbia/skorbydestrong.html
- ↑ http://www.picturetrail.com/gallery/view?p=999&gid=17850203&uid=5138952
- ↑ http://www.academy.co.kr/character/index.html