1. On official and unofficial records
Usually, an artist (or his representatives or heirs) signs a contract with a record company and in this way entitles the company to release his music. The exact nature of the contract can vary, of course. Sometimes it comprises only music recorded especially for that company, sometimes it also comprises older music of which the artist holds the rights. Sometimes the contract expires after a number of years (so that the rights to release the music go back to the artist), sometimes it entitles the company to (re-)release the music practically forever. But in any case the artist has explicitly authorized the release of his music by means of a contract. So let's define the term "official (or authorized) record" as follows:
An official record is one released by people who the artist had explicitly authorized to do so by means of a contract.
This needn't mean that the artist must be happy with every release. When, for example, Deram Records re-issued The Laughing Gnome at the height of the Ziggy-craze, Bowie was certainly not happy to hear himself on the radio singing a duet with a gnome. But this doesn't turn the record into an unofficial release, because Bowie had once authorized them to re-issue his music ad infinitum. The fact that he had once been a poor artist who had no other chance than signing such a bad contract doesn't change the status of the record.
We can now also define the term "unofficial (or unauthorized) record" by reversing the above definition:
An unofficial record is one released by people who the artist has never explicitly authorized to do so by means of a contract.
Sometimes all unofficial releases are simply called bootlegs, but among collectors it has become the standard to distinguish between bootlegs, counterfeits and pirate releases. It's easy to say what all these have in common: they are all unofficial releases in the sense of the above definition. But it's more difficult to define the differences... Let's begin with counterfeits.
2. On counterfeits
Let's start from the following preliminary definition: counterfeits are unofficial imitations of officially released records. Some people consider only those items to be counterfeits that are actually meant to trick collectors into thinking that they are buying the real thing. Good examples of counterfeits that can easily fool unexperienced collectors are the counterfeit of the US mono Deram LP, the fake German TMWSTW round cover LP, and the 2014 issue of the UK TMWSTW dress cover LP. However, the restriction that a counterfeit must be so well-made that it can fool collectors is a bit too strong in my opinion. Consider for example the Italian counterfeit of the TMWSTW dress cover LP. It is standardly classified as a counterfeit, despite the fact that the labels are so different from those of the original that no serious collector of Bowie records could ever be fooled by that record. In fact, when I first found that record in the 1980s I didn't regard it as an original for a second, but I was quite happy to have it, nonetheless, because it was the first "dress cover" version of TMWSTW in my collection. So sometimes collectors buy counterfeits to serve as a kind of placeholder in the collection - or simply because it is interesting to have an item that is very similar to a rare original release. So I would like to give the following definition of counterfeits:
A counterfeit is an unofficial record that looks (near-)identical to an officially released record and is attractive to collectors because of its close similarity to the original item.
This covers both the collector-cheating counterfeits and those that are deliberately bought for fun. You might consider this lengthy discussion on how to define counterfeits a bit pedantic, but that is necessary to distinguish counterfeits from pirate releases.
3. On pirate releases
One year after the release of the above-mentioned 2014 counterfeit of the dress cover version of TMWSTW an issue in green vinyl was released. No sane collector would confuse this item with an original release, and to say that it's attractive because of its similarity to that original doesn't make sense, either, since the green vinyl ruins any similarity. This is an example of a record that I call a pirate release. All the music on it is also easily available on official records, and it does not closely resemble any official release. Numerous pirate issues of this kind have turned up over the years - my favourite is a 2013 pirate issue of TMWSTW that pretends to be an Argentine Mercury dress cover LP - no such original record has ever existed!
Note, though, that pirate releases needn't always be copies of records that have been officially released in a different form. There are also unauthorized compilations of easily available material, for instance the 1990 South Korea compilation Best of the Best or the 2018 Italy album Davie Jones... and Other Stories, which is a compilation of officially released early material. So I would like to define a pirate release as follows:
A pirate release is an unofficial record that contains only easily available officially released material, but doesn't look (near-)identical to any officially released record.
This definition doesn't rule out any borderline case, such as the above-mentioned Italian counterfeit (pirate?) of TMWSTW, but I think it is a definition that allows a classification of most of the records in question.
You might wonder why I insist on the fact that the music on a pirate release must be "easily available". This criterion is necessary to distinguish pirate discs from bootlegs.
4. On bootlegs
When thinking of bootlegs most people think of unreleased live recordings and unreleased studio material such as demos and outtakes. In fact, bootlegs with that kind of stuff are the commonest ones. But, as in the case of counterfeits and pirates, things are not as easy as they appear at first sight. Consider, for instance, the 1978 single Memory of a Free Festival. It is a straight copy of a 1970 single and it has a cover that even resembles the covers of some European issues of the original single. It doesn't qualify as a counterfeit, though, since there is too little similarity to any of the original releases. However, if this record was released nowadays, it would clearly have to be classified as a pirate release, since you can easily get these tracks in a record shop (or at least on a second-hand copy of some CD or vinyl record on the internet).
However, back in 1978, the situation was completely different. The original singles had sold poorly in 1970, and had been out of print for eight years. And there had been no re-issues (in fact, the first official re-issue of these tracks came twelve year later). So in 1978 it was practically impossible to find these tracks on any official record! This is why I classify this record as a bootleg. So I would like to give the following definition of a bootleg:
A bootleg is an unofficial record that contains material that is not easily available on any officially released record at the time of release.
I think this definition matches most records that are standardly considered to be bootlegs.
5. Are all unofficial releases illegal?
Many people think that unofficial releases are generally illegal, but this is not true. For a long time they were, and in the 1970s and the 1980s busting bootleggers was one of the primary hobbies of the record industry. However, the reason for the illegal status of most bootlegs is that they contain copyright-protected material, and copyright can expire... This first happened in the late 1980s in the case of the so-called "protection-gap bootlegs". The exact length of copyright-protection of a recording depends on the laws of individual countries, and in some European countries, e.g. Germany, Luxembourg and Italy, the copyright of certain recordings (studio recordings might be treated differently than live recordings, recordings made outside Europe might have a different status than those made in Europe, etc.) expired. This lead to the release of several Bowie albums such as Letter to Hermoine and Live USA, which were perfectly legal items in their respective countries of manufacture, and were available at regular record stores. However, due to the free trade inside the European Union they were exported to other countries where copyright law was different and where these albums were, strictly speaking, illegal. To end this confusion the "protection gap" was closed around 1992, and these records were proclaimed "illegal" retrospectively. This strange legal arrangement makes it problematic to re-sell such items nowadays. I've never heard of anyone getting into trouble for selling a Bowie album of that kind, but be careful if you want to sell a Metallica "protection gap bootleg" - you might hear from their lawyers!
For about twenty further years the situation was clear again: unofficial releases were illegal, but from about 2010 onwards the "protection gap" started to open up again. Obviously, the copyright of certain recordings, especially TV and radio broadcasts, had expired again, so that now (2021) you can buy a considerable number of Bowie bootlegs from online shops like Amazon! In fact, some of these are not bootlegs in the above sense, but even pirate releases: for example you can buy a triple album of the Montreal 1987 show that competes with the official release of that show. And it seems to be perfectly legal. Despite this, I sometimes call such items "semi-legal" releases, to point out their strange nature.
Counterfeits are still generally illegal, but, after all, it's just a matter of time until the copyright of regular albums will have expired, too. So in a few decades you will probably be able to buy a home-made Ziggy-album at a regular record shop...
6. Are bootlegs "immoral"?
Legal questions aside, two arguments against bootlegs are often put forward: first, poor quality bootlegs can damage an artist's reputation, and, second, bootlegs take away an artist's control of his own music.
The first argument is mere nonsense. I have never heard of anyone blaming Bowie for the poor sound quality of a bootleg, all complaints have always aimed at the maker of the record.
There is something to the second argument, though. If Bowie had wanted us to hear, say, Tired of My Life, he would have released it, wouldn't he? But then again, it has always been that kind of recording that has kept the "fan spirit" alive during long periods without any new official releases. Sometimes I wonder if bootlegs aren't the best promotion an artist can get... Ultimately, you must decide for yourself if you accept or reject bootlegs and other unofficial releases.
7. A final remark: Anyone can make a bootleg!
Frifelt, who must have an impressive collection of Bowie bootlegs, writes a lot about their different editions. Again, I wouldn't care too much about that. Even using Frifelt's impeccable research on the topic, I haven't been able to determine the exact
editions of my two version of the Dollars in Drag album. Bootleggers just take a record and put it in some cover. If they have got records left, but no covers, they create a new cover. And anybody can do that! I have got an album called
Göteborg Memories, which is simply one half of the Serious Moonlight in Gothenburg double album. Maybe somebody just accidentally destroyed one of the records and created his own cover for the
To illustrate the point: decades ago I bought a white label album that had "David Bowie" scribbled on one of its labels. Ultimately, it turned out to be half of some version of the Slaughter in the Air double LP. Maybe I should create a nice insert. I could choose a great photo from the time, think up a good title, print out that artwork, make an enlarged copy on a copy machine (computer prints are too easy to identify), put in on a neutral sleeve (maybe even a spare old one from the 1970s)... and here we are: I would have created a mega-rare new Bowie bootleg! I could think up a good story ("Only very few with this insert were made..." - which would even be correct!), and sell the result for 50 Dollars on eBay.
I won't do that - my "collector's pride" keeps me from doing so. But others could...
The fact that anyone can produce a bootleg has lead to another weird development. Bootlegs have always been available in smaller quantities than official records, and there have always been very limited "special editions". But it has usually been the bootleggers' aim to distribute their products to a wider range of fans. In recent years, however, more and more records pop up (in listings, not on the market, that is) that were made in quantities of only twenty or even ten copies. I can't seriously consider these to be bootleg releases, since you can hardly say that something has been "released" if it has been distributed only to a handful of people. It's a bit as if I wrote a text, made ten copies, distributed these to my friends, and then claimed I had published a very rare book...
But of course it's up to you if you are willing to spend large sums of money for such a home-made item (provided you ever get the chance to find one of these)...