Bootleg is an adjective used to describe the illegal distribution or sale of goods. Specifically in audio or visual content, a bootleg version is one that is recorded and distributed or sold without knowledge or consent from the copyright or trademark owner. Bootleg recordings are not always sold for profit—sometimes, they are distributed among fans of a particular creator to commemorate an individual performance or event.
Sometimes bootlegs are made during live performances, but they can also include versions of professionally recorded content that have not been officially released yet. The latter category includes demo recordings, works in progress, and those that have been discarded or saved for private enjoyment. In this context, “bootleg” may also apply to software applications or video games that have been “leaked” before they are ready for official release.
History of bootleg
The term “bootleg” comes from the history of smuggling goods in the shaft of a tall boot. When the sale, possession, and consumption of alcohol was illegal during the American Prohibition era, bootleggers were able to conceal their contraband and evade punishment. Just as bootleggers smuggled alcohol during the Prohibition, bootleg recordings are often created and sold or distributed illicitly.
Live orchestra recordings and film soundtracks were among the first recorded materials to be bootlegged. Phonograph recordings of jazz, blues, and opera performances at the New York Metropolitan Opera house date back to the early 1900s as the first unofficial recordings of a live performance to be distributed.
Bootlegging became more common during stadium and arena concerts in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In these settings, concert-goers used portable electronic recording devices to capture the sound in the stadium or arena. Most venues explicitly prohibited unofficial recordings, but bootleggers’ compact devices could be concealed underneath clothing or in a small bag and used discreetly. This meant recordings were often full of (and sometimes overpowered by) crowd noises or other unavoidable environmental sounds.
In the 1990s, the invention of the compact disc (CD) made it easier and more affordable to mass-produce bootleg recordings. Similarly, the rise of the internet meant bootleggers could create platforms and mailing lists to widely and electronically distribute their recordings. By the end of the 2010s, physical copies of bootleg recordings had effectively been replaced with digital file formats like MP3 and MP4. Still, nostalgia for the physical recordings has maintained the trend of recording, distributing, and listening to bootlegs on vinyl records, cassette tapes, and CDs.
Types of bootleg content
Music is perhaps the most popular type of content to be bootlegged. Rock bands like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd became the most sought-after artists for bootleg content, and Prince’s The Black Album became one of the most legendary bootleg albums to ever be distributed. Bootlegging became so common at The Grateful Dead concerts that they became one of the first groups to provide a designated area near their sound booth for fans who wanted to record their show on tape.
A bootleg recording of a film or TV show, also known as a cam or camrip, is also prevalent, especially on free video platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo. Despite these platforms’ Community Guidelines that prohibit users from uploading content they do not have the right to use, penalization for the accounts that violate the terms only occurs if they are reported by the original artist or another user. These recordings are often extremely poor quality, which is why piracy (where the material is an exact duplicate of the original work) has become a more popular means of distributing illicit content online.
Clothing is a less prevalent area of bootlegging, as counterfeit garments and accessories are more likely to be successful. Unlike counterfeits, where a fake item is intended to be legitimately passed off as the original it’s imitating, bootlegged garments use a brand’s logo and identity to create unique items that may be perceived as legitimate. Some high-end brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton have turned this appropriation on its head by selling official garments that appear to mimic ones that are bootlegged.
Bootleg software is often mistaken for pirated software, which, as mentioned above, is an exact duplicate of the original program. With bootleg software, a user has manipulated the license key so it can be installed on more devices than intended. In some cases, a bootleg instance of a software can also include one that has been leaked or stolen before it is ready for official release.
Does bootleg mean fake?
Bootleg exists somewhere in the grey area between real and fake. While a bootleg is not an official version of an audio or video file, item of clothing, or software application, the contents are effectively identical to the original. The quality of the bootleg is usually degraded, but it is reproduction as opposed to a total recreation.
Bootleg vs. counterfeit vs. pirate vs. parody
Although the terms are quite similar, the distinctions between something that is bootlegged, counterfeited, or pirated usually come down to how the item is produced. Something that is counterfeit is nearly identical to the original item, as in the case of counterfeit money, clothing, or software, but is a recreation from start to finish.
Pirated material (usually films or music) is an exact copy of the original that has been duplicated by illegal means. Piracy is most common in online content and requires specialized technology or technical knowledge to accomplish. Bootleg copies are similar to pirated copies in that they are recordings of an original work instead of recreations, but the quality of a bootleg recording is generally much lower since it’s recorded during a live performance.
Perhaps least similar to the above types of content are parodies, despite frequent confusion. Unlike counterfeit, bootleg, or pirate copies of original works, parodies are copyright-protected and aim to add some sort of commentary (usually humorous in nature) from the parodying author’s perspective. Parody is more of an imitation than reproduction or recording, and examples include the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Weird Al Yankovic’s entire discography.
Risks of using bootleg content
Physical bootlegs pose little risk to the owner, but digital bootlegs can have potentially disastrous consequences. First and foremost, the files can be laced with viruses, ransomware, trojans, or other types of malware. At the very least, these can slow down your computer and damage your files, but the worst case scenario means your sensitive information is exploited and sold to more nefarious entities. This can also have broader implications for network security, depending on the device being used and the network to which it is connected.
In cases of bootleg software, users can also run the risk of unreliability or program failure at some point. If the company releases a software update that causes the program to malfunction, there is no way for the user to get assistance without verifying the license key and the device information.
Legal implications of bootleg property
Because some musicians and artists have come to accept bootlegging culture as a characteristic of their fanbase, there is a bit of grey area around bootlegging when it comes to the law. Current U.S. legislation dictates that copyright owners have control over how their content is reproduced, including during live performances. However, the law makes no judgment on how those reproductions are accessed. As such, the unauthorized recording and distribution of copyrighted material is explicitly prohibited under U.S. law, but merely owning said material is not a crime.
Enforcing the law around illicit recordings is usually only possible when a bootlegger attempts to sell, trade, or otherwise distribute their content. Further, the fact that some copyright owners (like The Grateful Dead, referenced above) actually encourage their fans to bootleg their performances makes it increasingly difficult to trace/prosecute the source of bootleg property.