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1 Sept 2014

The Big Debate - "Originals vs Recasts (Knock-Offs)" Part One

Recently there has been some interesting, animated, and sometimes heated debate on an issue that has been around for decades, and not just in the toys/collectibles industry. At its roots, the topic revolves around essentially the theft of someone's original work. In the music and movie business, this concept has been around for years with pirated CDs, DVDs, and blu-rays, and then of course the many torrent and illegal download sites.

In the toy industry, the concept has been around for decades too, with knock-off versions of original toys seemingly up for sale whilst the (usually more expensive) originals are still on the shelves! With official toy manufacturers like Hasbro, Mattel, NECA, and now even Hot Toys, it's pretty clear where things lie when fake copies are made of these figures, at least for me. Right up front, I'll say that I do not support fake copies (aka knock-offs) of genuine figures (my reasons will be explained below).

But the recent debates in the collecting community seem to be focused not so much on whether people support knock-offs of officially licensed figures, but also knock-offs of custom figures made by customisers who create their own unique molds. This is where things certainly get a little grey, a little contentious, and bring up all sorts of issues that speak to the heart of collectors around the world (and thus generates the kind of passionate debate that has been going around recently).

I've been involved in some debates in collecting groups on Facebook, and also some animated discussions in recent Google hangouts with collectors around the world. I've learnt things from both sides of the argument, and can certainly see the viewpoints of both sides. So I just wanted to write down here in this article my own thoughts and opinions on the various key parts of the debate. Hope you can stay around to read through the rest :)

Official licenses
OK, so let's start with what I think is the easy part of the debate. When toy manufacturers including the likes of Hasbro, Mattel, Takara, and Hot Toys make figures, they do so officially through properly obtained licenses and agreements with the holder of the intellectual property (IP). For example, Hasbro has license agreements with Lucasfilm for Star Wars figures, and Hot Toys has agreements in place with Marvel for all of their Marvel related figures.

The licensing fees associated with these properties are quite substantial (that's how George Lucas became a billionaire!). Even in the case of Takara, they themselves are the holder of the IP and own the rights to the Transformers (with a close relationship with Hasbro). But essentially, these toy manufacturers either own or have paid for the right to produce these official toys.

In addition to that, these toy manufacturers employ designers to go through the full design process of making toys, from initial sketches, engineering, prototype molds and materials, paint application, final manufacture, and distribution/marketing. That whole workflow costs a lot of money for any organisation, and so the companies set the figure price points such that they can recoup that investment and actually turn a significant profit for their shareholders! Of course it's also based on what the market itself can handle, and companies are always pushing the limits on price to find that fine balance between cost and sales with the number of figures they need to make.

Once the figures are released (or even before!), into the midst comes a recaster/knock-off maker that takes that original design, makes a copy of it, and then sells the replica at a fraction of the price. To me, it is pretty obvious that this is clearly theft of someone else's design, for which the original manufacturer has no benefit. In fact, in many cases the original manufacturer may be adversely affected if many people decide to buy the knock-off instead of the original.

I will never support the purchasing of knock-off versions of official figures. I work in an industry that engineers products, and a lot of resources are used to protect intellectual property, ownership, and fighting against copies and duplication of designs. So perhaps that's why I lean towards always buying official products even if there is a much cheaper recasted/knock-off version.

Some throw into this argument the exclusivity of collectibles. If a manufacturer releases an official item, but only makes 300 of them, is it OK for people to buy a recast of that item at a cheaper price? I don't think that is OK either, and wouldn't support that. There are many collectibles out there that have been released in limited numbers in the past that I can no longer obtain (at least at reasonable prices anyway). If a recast of that item was to become available, I still would not get it, as that concept just seems wrong to me. For me, that is buying something that is clearly stolen from something else.

I understand that it takes a lot of skill, time, and money to run a recast/knock-off production chain. These recasting operations cater for those collectors that perhaps can't afford or can't obtain limited items that they really want. But in the end to me it's about the creative person or manufacturer that matters. Who was it that put in the time, effort, and artistic skill to generate the item in the first place? That is who I should reward with my money, not the person who manages to make a copy of it that can obviously be sold for a fraction of the price (all the creative hard work was done for them!)

Some collectors go on to say that manufacturers should make their items more available to stop recasts/knock-offs. To me, I don't see how that can be a feasible solution either. Toy makers determine how many figures they need to make and sell in order to generate a decent profit. As they're making that figure, at the same time they are already investing money designing the next figure, which will ultimately use the same factory and resources. So a company cannot simply just keep pumping out the same figure until every collector is able to get their hands on one! Finding that balance between supply and demand is always difficult, with so many figures selling out, and then so many figures also peg-warming too!

The best manufacturers will usually announce the edition size of items well in advance of preorders, so that collectors can be prepared when the listing goes up. I stayed up all night to secure one of 300 Pop Culture Shock exclusive statues recently that sold out in 10 minutes. What annoyed me most was that instantly after the preorder sold out, there were already listings on ebay for the statue at well inflated prices. I would've preferred that real collectors who actually wanted the item got it, instead of scalpers.

If I had missed out on the exclusive, I would've been upset for sure. But then I would simply be content with getting the regular version, which has a much larger edition size. We can't have it all, and never will. I've missed out on some beautiful items, but managed to get others. In some way, it's almost part of the fun (my heart has never beaten so fast in my time collecting than during that 10 minute preorder period!)

In the end, I understand why manufacturers put limits on their figure sizes, and I accept that I will sometimes miss out on items that I really want. But I would still not support a recast of an exclusive item just so I could get a copy of it at a cheaper price. That just seems like a cop out.

Some also say my point of view above is elitist, but I don't think it has anything to do with elitism. To me, someone is being elitist when they look down condescendingly on someone else's collection based purely on criteria like scale/size, value, or source material.

I've posted in forums about my small Kotobukiya statues, only for those that collect 1/4 scale statues to state how lowly my collection is compared to theirs. That is elitism.

I've posted in forums about my 6" figures, only for those that collect 1/6th scale or 1/4 scale figures to comment on how shit my figures look compared to theirs. That is elitism.

But being against the recasting of limited collectibles so that the masses can obtain copies is not about elitism. I don't think those collectors that have items I want are any better than I, it's just they were lucky enough to obtain them when they were available!

For me it's about respecting the original artist or designer that put their creative efforts into making something collectible, something we want. I think buying a recast/knock-off disrespects that, and means you support the stealing of someone else's hard work to get an item cheaper.

In the end, people will buy what they want to buy, and there's obviously a market for these recasts/knock-offs. But for me, it just feels wrong.

Up next - Part Two!
I think my thoughts above cover the easiest part of this debate. For me, I do not support recasts/knock-offs of officially licensed products. In part two, I'll get into the grey area that has generated perhaps the most discussion - is there a difference to the argument if the original item is not officially licensed? How should we treat customisers and 3rd party companies?

Hope you can stay tuned for my thoughts tomorrow! :)

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