Hello! And welcome to my first article written as someone with permission to post to Observation Deck! I don't know if I shall do so often, but having gotten such permission I figured I should flex it a bit. At least the once! So, what shall I write about? Should be something I know... How about Transformers?
To the adult toy collector, Transformers can be serious business. And sometimes, Hasbro's efforts are not always up to the task. Many third party companies have produced unofficial products designed to complement and supplement, or in some cases, even replace official offerings.
Now, where does morality come into this? I suppose that depends on your own personal standards. The basic point is this: Transformers as a brand is owned by Hasbro. If you are not Hasbro, and you make a Transformers toy, you can get yourself in trouble. And if, as a consumer, you knowingly buy such a toy, you are potentially supporting IP theft. Is it okay to do so? Is it not okay? Is there some grey area in between?
First of all, we need to define the difference between "third party product" and "knock-off toy."
A third party item is a completely original product which may take inspiration from existing characters in Transformers fiction, but which does not borrow any parts from existing Hasbro (or Takara, the company which produces Transformers in Japan) toys.
A knock-off toy, however, is not afraid too take a mold from an official toy and reproduce it in part or in whole. In some cases, the mold may be altered or recolored in an attempt to improve it or alter the toy to represent a different character. Or it may just be a straight reproduction of a popular but rare and/or expensive toy, being sold in a dubious effort to give collectors a cheaper alternative to official toys.
Knock-offs, of course, have a history almost as long as Transformers toys themselves. In fact, the heat sensitive "rub signs" were added to Transformers toys in their second year of production as a way of saying, "This is a real Transformer!" In the past, knock-offs have been of dubious quality. But today, some of them can be almost as good as the official products, and sometimes if one is buying online from places such as eBay, if a price looks too good to be true, the chances are you might be unknowingly buying a knock-off!
But let us leave knock-offs aside for now, and talk about "third party products."
What do you do if you think a figure you have isn't good enough? With any luck, someone might come along and offer you an additional product to augment it. One early well known example is Ultra Magnus from the 2006 Classics line of Transformers. In the G1 toyline, Ultra Magnus was a recolor of Optimus Prime's toy with a new trailer which could transform into armor for Ultra Magnus to wear. In the cartoon, you never saw Ultra Magnus without this armor, and thus many see his "armored up" appearance as essential to his look. But in 2006, Classics Optimus Prime had no trailer, and neither did his repaint into Classics Ultra Magnus. Thus, Ultra Magnus was just presented as a white repaint of Optimus Prime.
A company called Fansproject soon took care of that. They released a trailer for him:
Which could be disassembled into armor:
And the end result looks much less like a "white Prime" and much more like a proper Ultra Magnus:
Are such products moral? Well, I see no reason why not. These do not in any way compete with official Hasbro (or Takara) toys, and in fact would be useless without the official ones. In fact, if the official toy is especially disappointing but the add-on does an especially good job of redeeming it, it may encourage sales of the official toy.
Also, such products as the one presented above are careful not to include any directly copyrighted names or iconography. No where on the packaging or instructions for this product does it say "Ultra Magnus." Rather, the trailer accessory was sold under the somewhat more vague name of "City Commander." Also, while the one I am presenting in my photos does have Autobot logos on it, those were stickers, not included with it, that I added after the fact.
Eventually, though, some third party companies started making entire figures! Usually, this is in the case of characters that Hasbro has not shown any signs of making more modern toys of themselves. For example, Reflector. Reflector is the collective name of three robots who combine to form a single camera. Very recently, Hasbro did make a token effort: a single Targetmaster sized robot who forms a tiny camera, and also now has a third "weapon" mode. But in years past, there were a few different third party efforts to produce a Reflector for the fans. This is the one I have:
(Again, any Decepticon logos were added after the fact.)
But what about figures Hasbro has already offered? In 2007, Hasbro released a Classics Devastator, in this case re-using an existing set of molds from their earlier Energon toy line. It was one of three such Energon gestalts that were later repurposed by Hasbro to be updated versions of G1 characters. As far as many fans were concerned, these recolored re-releases didn't quite do the job. The other two, Superion and Bruticus, were redeemable with just some upgrades. Alas, Devastator was a bit more tricky of a prospect. Here is the official one from 2007, thanks to a photo borrowed from the Transformers Wiki:
He is composed of five separate figures rather than the usual six, meaning that when he is broken up, you are short one whole Constructicon! Repeated molds within those five, and hugely different aesthetics when compared with how Devastator should look don't help much, either.
So in this case, two separate companies eventually decided to try and give fans a "proper" Devastator. Is it right, though, to buy such figures when an official alternative is available?
Here we get into a bit more of a grey area. By the time that the third party ones came out, it was well after the official one would have been long gone from retail. So Hasbro already had all of the sales they would have had of their version. But on the other hand, there is an official version, and one could argue that if you want a Devastator, that is what you should have!
Yet compare the one presented above with the one that I do have, one of the aforementioned third party offerings:
Now this is a Devastator! (Again, any Decepticon logos you may see were stickers added by me... eh, you get the point by now...)
But let us talk more about how things start getting grey. On one hand, Hasbro did offer one. On the other hand, these third party ones came out long after that one was sold out. But then again, what if Hasbro ever does want to doo Devastator again? (There are, in fact, strong rumors that this is about to happen.)
Are there people out there who might have bought this hypothetical new Devastator, who might now not do so because they are happy with what they already have? Quite possibly. Will this hurt Hasbro's sales? Some suspect probably not. Even though Hasbro will sometimes put out things clearly designed in part to appeal to nostalgic adults, their main market will always be children, and children are not going to be owning third party toys that aren't domestically available in regular retail stores, and that often cost multiple times what an equivalent official figure would cost.
Now let us make things even more grey, shall we?
Hasbro released a figure designed to be a modern update of the Generation 2 Laser Optimus Prime. Alas, as Hasbro often does with modern Optimus Prime figures, they omitted his trailer. Once again, a third party company to the rescue!
And they took things in a different direction, by taking the trailer, which on the vintage official toy just formed a base, and reimagined it as wearable armor:
So, how is this different from the above presented City Commander? Seems kosher, doesn't it? After all, it requires an official toy to use with it. Without that cab section and the core robot it transforms into this would be pretty useless, right?
Except... now this company is producing their own version of the cab to sell with their trailer.
(Above two photos from TFW2005.com)
On the surface, it looks like there are no exact parts copied from Hasbro's mold, and there are in fact some distinct differences. But at the very least, it would be hard to argue that this figure could exist without the engineering that Hasbro put into their version of this figure. It is too close for comfort to me, to be sure, and is in danger of crossing a line between "third party figure" and "knock-off."
So, where does this leave us?
In recent years, the third party market has exploded. Where once they only augmented official figures or offered characters unlikely to be getting new official figures, now-a-days it is not uncommon to see Hasbro and the third parties in direct competition with one another. And in some cases, the line between "third party" and "knock-off," a line which was once fairly distinct, is becoming blurred.
This has always been the policy of my collection:
-If possible, official figures are the preferred choice.
-Augmenting official figures with third party accessories is always an option.
-Third party figures are only an option if there is no official option available, and if no such official option has been announced or is strongly rumored. (Rare exception may be made if the official option is especially horrendous, such as the case discussed above with Devastator. Of course, this can be rather subjective and open to interpretation.)
-NO knock-offs. (I will admit a few tiny exceptions to this exist in my collection. If anyone wishes to call me out on my hypocrisy, I shall be happy to elaborate upon it in the comments.)
-Finnally, if I have a third party toy and an official one later comes out, if the official toy is awesome, I can always still get it. But this doesn't go both ways. If it happens the other way around, and a third party toy comes out for a character whose official toy was obviously good enough to pick up, then the official toy is still good enough.
Bottom line: Without Hasbro, we wouldn't have Transformers. We should support the official toys. This doesn't mean third party items don't have a place in Transformers fandom, but that place should be to augment and support a collection of official Transformers toys, and not to replace them. And that, I suppose, is the moral by which I collect Transformers.
Agree? Disagree? Have other vaguely related thoughts? Please feel free to share them in the comments!