2 Sep 2014

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

OK, so in The Big Debate - Part One, I gave my thoughts around official licensing from big toy manufacturers, recasts/knock-offs of those original releases, and my take on exclusivity and elitism relating to all that. In summary, I do not support the making and selling of recasts or knock-off versions of officially released collectibles, no matter the type.

But the recent debates haven't really focused on the official licensing side of things. In fact, the most passionate arguments have centred around recasts and knock-offs of custom head sculpts created by small, niche artists that generally deal with source material not being tackled by the larger official toy manufacturers.

So why is this seemingly minor difference creating such a storm and heated debate? Hope you can stick around and read more of my thoughts and opinions on this below :)

What is a knock-off?
I want to first cover off something fundamental that generates debate in itself, and that's the very definition of what is a knock-off! I thought it was fairly clear, but many people seem to interpret it differently.

For me, a knock-off is something that is created as an exact copy or replica of a unique design. For example, if I were to take a collectible, cover it in plaster to create a mold from which I could create copies of that collectible, then I would be creating a knock-off. If I were to take some 3D design file of a collectible and use some sophisticated 3D printing machine to make a mold or sculpt from that design file, I would also be making a knock-off. Essentially, anything that is taking and replicating a unique design is a knock-off.

But then there are other people who believe that a knock-off includes non-official, unlicensed collectibles. So they believe that custom sculpts or 3rd party figures that are not licensed and don't bear official names, are also knock-offs, even if they are uniquely designed.

That is where I disagree, and this is perhaps where the grey area comes into this whole argument. For the latter viewpoint, unlicensed and custom sculpts are knock-offs because the artist/designer has not paid for the rights to create and sell collectibles based on that source material. But to me, even if the collectible is unlicensed, it is not a recast/knock-off if it is a unique design and not something copied. In my eyes, you can't create a knock-off of an actual human being playing a character in a movie!

Perhaps it is true that these customisers and 3rd party companies are doing something illegal in selling unlicensed figures. And perhaps it is hypocritical of me say that I don't support knock-offs on one hand, but also say that I support the creation of unlicensed collectibles. But in the end, it all comes down to who is using their skill, creativity, and artistry to create something. To me, a customiser who can create and sell an awesome representation of a character is better than someone who simply recasts a product that someone else created.

Third Party Companies
As I mention above, third party companies (ie. unlicensed/unofficial companies) might well be doing something illegal in creating unique designs of collectibles. But if it were truly illegal, then I'm confused as to how so many of them are able to get away with it, and actually have their products sold by major retailers.

The biggest and most obvious example of these third party companies relate to Transformers figures. The official manufacturer, Takara, will never get around to producing all the sought after characters, and so these third party companies come in and design their own unique figures based on those iconic characters.

In many instances, the level of intricate design, engineering, and production quality rivals (if not exceeds) that of official Takara products. The Fans Toys Quakewave figure is a perfect example, with many collectors acknowledging that their interpretation of Shockwave is every bit the masterpiece like others in the official line. Other unofficial figures that have been well received include Citizen Stack (aka Ultra Magnus) and Scoria (Slag) that have filled the gap left by Takara.

There is no way that I consider those figures to be knock-offs, because the company went through the exact same workflow as other official manufacturers to design, engineering, produce, and distribute that unique figure. Their own artists created unique designs, not copies of someone else's design. They are every bit as talented as the official company!

Is what they are doing illegal? If so, there must be some licensing loophole specific to Transformers that allows them to continue to produce these items, and have them sold by some of the biggest and most reputable retailers around the world! Everyone knows they are not official, as they don't bear the Transformers symbols or official names, but yet they are widely accepted.

I would love to hear from any readers if you know of any other examples in the toy industry where third party companies seem to be free to create unique designs. Again for me, I admire these companies because they are talented, and using their creativity to fill a gap in the official line for figures that they know collectors want.

Customs
Aside from larger third party companies, there are the customisers in the community who also are able to fill the gaps in collections by creating beautiful unique sculpts and figures of characters not tackled by official companies. In fact, some also create unique sculpts and figures of characters that have been officially released, but they had the talent to do better!

A perfect example of this is Kato, a now well-known custom designer of 1/6th scale clothing. I think Kato's story with his Joker suit is the perfect Hollywood styled, dream come true tale. He essentially lived the dream of many talented customisers, who through their exceptional talent was able to be noticed by the "big players" and invited to contribute officially through a major collectibles manufacturer.

When he first designed and made his Dark Knight Joker suit, it was by far the best tailored suit in that scale. That level of skill is always going to be noticed by collectors who want the best representation possible for their favourite characters. He probably posted photos and was approached by keen collectors willing to buy the custom suits, or maybe he was even business savvy enough to know he had a great product and was able to market it himself.

I'm not sure how many suits he made, but if he commanded a price and collectors were willing to pay it, then to me that's great for him. I am sure he probably spent many hours designing it, cutting the material, redesigning it, making minute adjustments to make perhaps the perfect 1/6th scale suit. That takes time, passion, skill, and lots of creativity, and it shows in the final product that he sold to collectors.

His product was so good that Hot Toys took notice, or perhaps he was savvy enough to approach Hot Toys themselves to show them his skill. Again that is great for him, and it was his creativity and skill that got him into that position, not the cheap way out of copying someone else's product.

Eventually, he collaborated with Hot Toys so that they could mass produce his Joker suit design for their DX11 Joker 2.0 figure. He advised them production team on how to replicate his suit for mass production - he did make them himself like he did with his original suits. So you can clearly see differences in his original, personally hand-made suits and those that were produced by Hot Toys based on his design.

So in the end, those collectors that bought his original customs still have the best representation of the Joker suit around. And those collectors that were happy enough with the DX11 Joker still got a great suit too. I do not think that the release of the DX11 diminishes anything from those collectors who were passionate and lucky enough to pay for hand-made customs from Kato that are better than the mass-produced suit.

Kato's story is a feel-good story on all fronts! He used his creative skills to influence a major player in the collecting community, and was able to cater for both the niche custom collector and the mainstream everyday collector.

There are other customisers who deal mainly with head sculpts or full figures, and their talent is no less amazing than Kato's. The fact that they can sell their unique designs to collectors for quite high prices is due to their own creativity and artistic skills. They are not copying or leveraging off the hard work of someone else's product. In my eyes, they are not creating knock-offs.

But if a collector, recaster, or knock-off maker takes their unique sculpt and makes a replica that they can sell at a cheaper price, then they are indeed creating a rip-off product, regardless of the fact the original item is not officially licensed! Again they are stealing someone else's unique design and I just cannot support that. In my eyes, that is no different to recasting an official product, and disrespects the hard work and creativity of the original artist.

Summary
So after all that rather long-winded rambling above, what else can I say? For me, the values that I hold highest are those that relate to the skill, talent, passion, and creativity of original artists and designers that can create these incredible collectibles. At the end of it, it really doesn't matter to me that the products are officially licensed or not. If they are unique designs, then I admire the art behind that.

What I do not support is the stealing of those designs to make a cheaper replica. These knock-offs just feel wrong to me, because the people behind these versions don't have the skill and creativity to design and make their own unique item, and therefore resort to stealing from others.

As I mentioned in Part One, this whole issue with knock-offs has been around for decades, and will continue for decades to come. It is really up to each individual collector and their own values to decide how they want to collect, and what they support. It's certainly not a black and white issue like many on either side of the debate believe it is. I'm not going to judge anyone by which side of the fence they stand on this issue. But at least people know where I stand, and can respect that too.

Thanks again for reading, and I hope you've enjoyed it. I'm open to all viewpoints, so comment and let me know your thoughts too :)