“Third Party” Transformers – Transformers-inspired toys made in relatively small runs by fans with pretty clear disregard for copyright law – are a pretty contentious business in the community. A lot of fans draw a line between the add-on sets like iGear’s IDW-style Kup heads that require you to own an official toy and standalone toys like most of what Fansproject makes. At BotCon 2012 both types were strictly prohibited from the dealer room, though a distinction was made between them and artistic fan-works like, say, the Starscream dakimakura being sold at one table. This year (possibly due to the departure of Aaron Archer from Hasbro) there were no such restrictions.
For the first time I came face to face with these Third Party toys, and I fell into the abyss.
What’s So Amazing About Third Party Toys?
What the third party creators do – and generally do well – is make things they have no reason to expect Hasbro to ever make. They’re infringing on copyrights in a bad way by using character designs owned by Hasbro, but with very few exceptions these are not knockoffs (which would be toys molded directly from existing Hasbro toys). For me, it started with an accessory set during Friday’s dealer room hours: the Blast Cannon mod set for First Edition Prime Bulkhead. At a mere $35 and with minimal moral cost, it started me down a slippery slope. By Saturday morning I was justifying Fansproject’s “Function X-1: Code” as Shadowplay Chromedome. By Saturday night I was following a tip to the 5th floor of a hotel building with open balconies, fighting Silverbolt-esque acrophobia, to chase a rumor that the Third Party Party people had the Last Stand of the Wreckers-inspired Topspin and Twin Twist for a mere $65 a pair. I kind of had a problem.
Third Party toys are a form of fanart. They’re designed and made by people who love the brand, who love the characters, who love the toys. They are a form of fan expression, and I love fan expression. They’re custom figures that you can own without the cost of a one-of-a-kind custom.
So What’s Wrong With ‘Em?
For most people, the biggest reason not to buy third party toys is that they are really fucking expensive, oh my GODS. Even before you get into how morally dubious they are there’s the price tag. Because of their limited production runs these toys can cost more than convention exclusives of the same size. A Deluxe-size toy will often be $50 at a minimum. Bigger ones and sets go well over $100.
They’re also very, very not-made-for-children, and this means those of us who’re used to safety-tested toys are going to have to pay more attention. There will be sharp edges, there will be bits that don’t peg in as well as we’re used to from Hasbro toys, and there will be places in the instructions that tell you to do something the toy doesn’t have quite the right tolerances to do. Some are very well-engineered, but others are less so, and with so many companies making them it can be hard to know which ones are worth buying.
And as much as I love the fan expression aspect of them, some of the sellers can be kind of sketchy, and not in the fun way. I expected something as subversive as the Third Party Party to be run by subversive people; what I got was a conversation with the old Southern dude running it – apparently a good buddy of Brian Savage’s, and no real surprise there – telling me how he didn’t like going to Starbucks because of their support for gay marriage. (Seriously, though, sales people, read your audience. Don’t tell the dykey blue-haired chick about your opposition to gay marriage when she just gave you money.) Some dealers carrying these are fans, but some of them are the sorts who are only into the money-making side of the brand and who’ve probably never even read the comics some of these toys are based on.
And, you know, they’re a great big copyright infringement.
The Moral Compromise
As with anything in deeply illegal but gray moral territory, sometimes you have to make your own decisions. I’m not buying any of the Third Party toys that are actual knockoffs, for one thing. And I’m not going to buy any that Hasbro is likely to replace – they ALREADY stole some Third Party thunder with Generations Springer and the upcoming MTMTE-inspired Swerve toy. But I don’t see them doing comic-accurate Topspin and Twin Twist (and I know I’ll end up getting the Generations ones once they show up at my Target), and right now I will buy ANYTHING that’s Chromedome. I’m still buying what Hasbro’s selling as well.
I just love seeing what fans can be inspired to do by the things we mutually love, and I think, so long as it’s not actually cutting into what Hasbro’s doing, it’s a good thing to have.