If you’ve gone to a convention or shopped around online for any length of time, you’ve probably run across some merchandise featuring your favorite hero. Regardless of genre or format, you can find something for just about every character. Now, there’s obviously going to be more featuring Captain Kirk than Captain Klutz, but you can find something for either if you’re willing to dig around a bit.
Of course, not all of what you’ll find is legal, though. It’s not uncommon to find posters, t-shirts, buttons, and all sorts of other material featuring characters that have not been licensed to the producer. Particularly in cases where the legal property owner has not provided much merchandise in the first place. One of the more famous examples of this would be the car decals featuring Calvin relieving himself on a logo of some disliked brand, particularly cars and universities. While not seen as much anymore, Bart Simpson was also the subject of many illegal shirts back when The Simpsons first started, but before Fox realized they had a hit on their hands. In both cases, people tried to take advantage of what they saw as a void in the market and hoped to make a few bucks before demand waned and/or they were threatened with legal action.
It’s easier than ever to create original materials for yourself at affordable prices, thanks to the print-on-demand type systems that computers allow, they can also be taken advantage of to replicate others’ materials just as quickly and affordably. Which means you can pretty easily find a Network 23 patch from Max Headroom, a Moritaka Mashiro modeled wig from Bakuman, and a security badge from Agents of SHIELD even complete with your own information and likeness on it! Even getting a complete set of Stormtrooper armor isn’t difficult.
But, as I said, much of this is illegal. And while it’s easy enough to tell fans that participating in transactions for these items takes away from opportunities of the actual license-holders, the ones that fans should arguably be the most interested in helping as they can say whether or not additional works might be created. An underground market for these items prevents the owners not only from realizing some additional profits, but it also prevents them from gauging whatever interest there might be in the property, as they’re completely excluded in this (admittedly capitalistic) fan dialogue.
On the flip side, though, those owners don’t always want or are even able to pursue additional licensing measures. They may have little interest in something they worked on decades earlier, particularly if they’re more recent projects are more fruitful. After all, if those characters were still popular, the TV shows and movies and books they appeared in would still be selling too. So if they don’t seem to express much concern about whether others take advantage of their older ideas—as I said, it’s incredibly easy to find this stuff at both conventions and online and they seem to generally turn a blind eye to it—why should an individual fan be worried about the ethics of their purchase? They’re showing their support by displaying the merchandise and (ostensibly) drumming up interest in a forgotten property.
I certainly can’t condone the practice, but it’s hard to argue against the practicality of consumerism in action.