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Country and Copyright: The Problem with Bootleg Merch

An official Waylon Jennings t-shirt. waylonshop.com

Buying merch from your favorite artist is a great way to show your support for their music and score some great gear in the process. And at a time when merch sales are particularly important, buying that t-shirt might make more of a difference in an artist’s livelihood than you realize.

But what happens when third parties start making knock-off t-shirts, hats, keychains, koozies and any other memorabilia to profit from an artist’s name? Well-meaning fans buy products emblazoned with their favorite country singer’s name or face and the actual artist doesn’t see a dime of those proceeds.

The Bootleg Problem

Last year Kacey Musgraves took to Instagram to call out a “major corporate western wear chain” for selling a sign featuring her name and lyrics from her song “Biscuits.” As Musgraves’ notes in her post, the kneejerk reaction is to dismiss the act as flattery. But when you make your living from your song lyrics, having intellectual property stolen from you is detrimental. “Theft is not a compliment,” Musgraves wrote. “The product might be cute but stealing ain’t.”

Heads up! This sign was found being sold in a major corporate western wear chain. (It's now pulled off the shelves) but it, along with SO MANY other countless items with my song lyrics [and sometimes my name] are being illegally manufactured and sold in not only major chains but in smaller retailers too. My lyrics are being ripped off so many times and, naturally, nobody buying this stuff would ever know that the people who actually CREATED these lyrics are seeing ZERO benefits. It's a huge problem I face every day. There are correct ways to go about using intellectual property to sell and it's not being done. And yeah, sure, it's flattering and it's "getting my message out there" but I've got bills to pay, too. Theft is not a compliment. (My livelihood is my songwriting) Anyway, it just makes me kinda sad and I wanted y'all to know that I currently have not authorized any of my lyrics to be put on anything for sale in ANY major retailers or boutiques of any kind. If you support me and my music please just go to my website and shop or come to a show. And please lemme know if you see anything out there. I'm down to fight it. This happens to SO many writers. Think before you buy. The product might be cute but stealing ain't. ** editing to say that what IS legal is putting a song title on something. What IS NOT legal is using a complete lyric and much less, my name. **

A post shared by ⚡️K A C E Y M U S G R A V E S (@spaceykacey) on

It wasn’t the first time an artist has went head to head with vendors slinging fake merch. In 2015, Eric Church sued bootleggers selling unauthorized t-shirts outside his concerts.

As Saving Country Music reported, after the passing of Merle Haggard in 2016, a slew of t-shirts hit the market memorializing the late star. The Haggard family won’t see any money from the sale of those products. Using the death of a country legend as an opportunity to sell t-shirts is particularly tasteless. Still, ads for those shirts popped up all over the Facebook feeds of country music fans and probably anyone who had recently searched for anything Merle Haggard related.

The Hag is not the only country legend to be exploited. Waylon Jennings’ daughter-in-law, Kathy Jennings, told Fox 17 Nashville that she’s frequently reported the website TeeChip to Facebook for selling unlicensed Waylon Jennings merchandise.

What is Protected?

With the rise of online marketplaces, selling unauthorized merchandise is more prevalent than ever. A quick search of nearly any artist on Amazon brings up pages of unlicensed memorabilia. All a potential seller has to do is check a box claiming that they have legal permission to use an image.

So what can legally be used in merchandising? Song titles are OK, lyrics are not. For example, Dolly Parton didn’t invent the name Jolene. She did create the line “her beauty is beyond compare, with flaming locks of auburn hair.” So creating a product with that lyric without permission would be theft.

But even using phrases associated with songs can be tricky because of trademark rights. (See Taylor Swift’s attempt to trademark “this sick beat.”) Trademark rights are different from copyright laws. A trademark doesn’t have to be entirely unique to the artist to be eligible for trademark status.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. The murky world of copyright and trademarks allows bootleggers to profit from an artist’s work. So how do you avoid getting duped into buying something that rips off your favorite band? The best bet is to buy straight from the source. If merchandise isn’t listed on an artist’s website, chances are it’s a fake.

In the end, you’ll know you’re supporting an artist you love. Oh, and you’ll save yourself the embarrassment of running into Kacey Musgraves with a bootleg “Biscuits” shirt.

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Country and Copyright: The Problem with Bootleg Merch