From Taylor Swift to KISS, the Bootleg Music Merch Business Is Hurting Artists — And It’s Getting Worse

Artistes
Seventeen cartoon renditions of Taylor Swift — wearing pink sunglasses, posing in her purple Speak Now dress, posing in a “Not A Lot Going On At the Moment” t-shirt — are stamped onto an Amazon page for a 24-piece cupcake-topper set. “Our Singer cake decorations are made of high-quality food-grade cardstock,” reads the description. “Can be applied safely!” The $12.99 birthday party set, listed by the brand wgzftrys, which is headquartered in Guangdong Shen, China, is among the hundreds of Swift products available on Amazon — some bearing the megastar singer’s name and likeness, others using “TS” or a generic Taylor-ish young-blonde-woman image.

They’re mostly illegal bootlegs, according to music industry sources — a form of international intellectual property rights infringement that costs clothing, electronics, toy and sporting goods companies billions of dollars annually. In 2023, U.S. Border and Customs Protection seized nearly $2.8 billion in copyright-infringing goods shipped from multiple countries — most prominently China, Turkey and Canada. Jeff Jampol, CEO of Jam Inc., which manages the estates of the Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and others, says that his lawyers serve “dozens and dozens” of cease-and-desist orders monthly to suspected bootleggers on a variety of e-commerce sites and other webpages who cost artists roughly $20,000 to $50,000 for every $1 million in annual t-shirt sales.

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“In terms of how much money we lose, who knows?” says Steve Culver, president of Dreamer Media, a Nashville merchandising company that works with Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Melissa Etheridge and others. “It’s just so easy to set up an Amazon store — if you get shut down, you just put it back up again.” 

Reps for Swift and her label, Republic Records, didn’t respond to requests to comment for this story as they prepare to release her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, on April 19. But music merch companies have been battling this kind ofonline bootlegging for years, and they say the problem is getting worse. In 2021, Global Merchandising Services, citing rampant Motörhead trademark violations and counterfeiting, filed a lawsuit against 278 companies that “employ no normal business nomenclature and, instead, have the appearance of being made up.” These online stores sell knock-off t-shirts and other products, according to the suit, and each seller is “likely to cause and has caused confusion, mistake and deception by and among consumers.”

“It’s a game of Whack-a-Mole, and it’s a constant every day,” says Barry Drinkwater, executive chairman for the 15-year-old merchandiser, which handles products for Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden, Niall Horan and others. He estimates that the company issues “hundreds of thousands” of takedown notices annually: “All we can do is keep on top of it and spend some dollars,” he adds

Swift’s popularity is so immense that companies everywhere have co-opted her name, likeness and song titles to market and sell products big and small, from a Royal Caribbean International cruise for Swifties to “Tayl-gating” donuts to Swift flashing double middle-fingers on a t-shirt sold on eBay to the more than 1,000 Swift-themed items on handmade retailer Etsy. “There’s definitely bootleg and unauthorized stuff sold on Etsy, too,” says a representative for a major artist. “But are you going to go after the person who makes a necklace? No, you don’t want to be that guy.”

The Swift-branded knock-off products on Amazon — clearly different than those sold on her official store — include pillows, socks, pantyhose and keychains. A 14-piece friendship bracelet set, sold for $12.98 from GOIPKO, lists several of her albums and “I ❤️ TS”; a “Tay Tay Cheerleader Costume” for women, priced at $32.99 from Mokkin, bears the initials “TS.” A knit hat with the Nirvana logo (but not the Nirvana name), sold by a China-based company, goes for $9.99, while a pair of purple “Best Gaga Ever” socks, from the Chinese store ZJXHPO, is $14.99. 

Some of these products brazenly use the artists’ names and likenesses, while others are more ambiguous. Regarding a t-shirt with an “It’s Me Hi I’m the Birthday Girl It’s Me,” intellectual property attorney Michael N. Cohen says, “It invokes a Taylor Swift lyric, but it is modified, so is it transformative enough? Possibly.” A Swift representative could send a take-down notice, in which case Amazon could answer that question – or, in the case of a lawsuit, a jury could decide.

(Several companies listing these kinds of Swift products on Amazon did not respond to interview requests by email, although one seller responded “sorry” and another wrote, “Sorry. We are not interested in it.”)

Amazon declined interview requests, but a representative cited its intellectual property policy for sellers, which prohibits violating the rights of “brands or other rights owners” and advises consulting a lawyer. Amazon has algorithms that suss out unauthorized or illegal products posted by sellers, but they can take time to detect and take down, especially if they’re ambiguous, like a t-shirt image that somewhat resembles Taylor Swift containing words that somewhat recall lyrics from her songs. Since 2020, according to the company, Amazon has spent $1.2 billion and employed 15,000 people to combat counterfeit and fraud on the site, and “valid notices of infringements submitted by brands” have declined 30% despite overall sales growth at the company. Amazon’s Counterfeit Crimes Unit is the department responsible for removing “bad actor accounts,” according to the company’s website.

Retail apparel bootlegging — as opposed to the separate problem of unauthorized t-shirts sold in concert parking lots — has increased over the last 15 years, Jampol says. During that period, three-dimensional printers have become more sophisticated and enabled the print-on-demand industry. “One of the barriers to entry for doing apparel is, ‘I’ve got to have five designs and four colors each both for men and women, in extra-small, small, medium, large, extra-large,’ then have a place to store it,” he says. “Now, with print-on-demand, I can put out 5,000 designs in 182 colors, and when somebody orders an extra-small in pink, of this style, I just print it.”

The bootleg merch is prevalent on many retail sites, including “fake e-commerce storefronts,” as the Motörhead suit alleges, which counterfeiters have set up to match artists’ official websites. With reputable retailers like Amazon, artists can file takedown notices — but it helps, Cohen says, for artists to trademark their names in advance. “Whatever platform it is, they’ll do their own formal review and make a decision whether to take it down,” Cohen says. “That’s why filing is so critical. That proves there’s validity. Amazon and platforms like that want to see: ‘Do you have the registration number?’”

In the United States, solo artists and bands have “trademark rights” for their names and likenesses, so they can send cease-and-desist letters or file lawsuits against unauthorized merchandisers. The process is trickier in a different territory. “You can own rights in one country, but not in another country,” says Douglas Masters, an intellectual property attorney in Chicago. “It’s a big world.” And even for artists who are aggressive about pursuing international copyright infringers, “People are sometimes hard to find,” Masters adds.

That’s why Gene Simmons, bassist for KISS, contacts his management company roughly every other day to flag an infringer on the band’s trademarked merch. “Gene is online all the time and comes up with more of them than anybody,” says Doc McGhee, the band’s manager. “It certainly is a big problem. We go after them. We have a team of lawyers. It’s just stealing.”