What does "Bootleg" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The word “bootleg” is a slang term which originated in the colorful English of the American West. It refers to an activity which is illegal or clandestine. The term is usually used to refer to objects which are transported, made, or used for illegal purposes, ranging from bootleg alcohol which is sold secretly to avoid high taxes, to a bootleg radio station which broadcasts illegally using equipment which has been cobbled together by the operators.

The cassette tape provided an easy format for bootlegging.
The cassette tape provided an easy format for bootlegging.

People first started using this word in the 1800s, with the first recorded usage dating to 1889. The term was a reference to concealing a flask of alcohol inside a boot; people bootlegged alcohol to transport it for illegal sale and consumption. While the word initially referred to alcohol specifically, its meaning slowly expanded to include any sort of illicit, illegal, or clandestinely traded item, from a bootlegged cassette of a live musical performance to a bootlegged video game.

The term "bootleg" originated in the American West.
The term "bootleg" originated in the American West.

As a general rule, bootlegging is illegal. The item being bootlegged may itself be illegal, as in the case of controlled substances which are bootlegged, or the process of bootlegging may render it illegal. Copies of copyrighted games, music, books, and other materials, for example, are not legal because bootlegging violates the copyright. Likewise, bootlegged items like alcohol and cigarettes are usually traded illicitly to avoid paying taxes, which is a violation of the law.

Making unauthorized copies of digital media for friends is a form of copyright piracy.
Making unauthorized copies of digital media for friends is a form of copyright piracy.

Bootlegging is a major concern for some governments, and for agencies which protect and enforce copyright. When bootlegged copies of commercially produced items exist, the bootlegs can cut into sales, and consumers may potentially be exposed to dangerous bootlegs, such as an audio CD which includes a computer virus which will be loaded onto any computers the CD is played on, or bootlegged alcohol which has been prepared in dangerous conditions which could make people sick. Manufacturers and sellers of bootleg products can be prosecuted under a variety of laws, depending on the nature of their offense.

Bootleg CDs may contain movies or music that have yet to be released to the general public.
Bootleg CDs may contain movies or music that have yet to be released to the general public.

The tradition of making bootlegged copies of concerts and albums released by musical artists is quite old, dating back to the era when the cassette tape was introduced and consumers had an easy way to make recordings and distribute copies. While such bootlegs are technically not legal, some artists have leaked “bootlegs” of extra sessions, special content, and other materials for loyal fans, and on occasion, a bootleg has turned up with the only known copy of a particular song or event, making it quite valuable from a historical perspective.

Cigarettes may be bootlegged, or traded illicitly, to avoid paying taxes.
Cigarettes may be bootlegged, or traded illicitly, to avoid paying taxes.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Treeman - I have heard stories about bootlegging lawsuits as well, when one free music downloading site was really taking off, I remember that the authorities took a teenage girl to court. I felt they were trying to make an example out of her because it was when 'bootlegging' music from free downloads on the internet just started to become big.

This was back in 2003 and from what I can tell as far as bootlegging music off the internet goes, it is difficult to do; which as a friend of musicians, I think is only fair!

The teenage girl in the case I was talking about ended up having to pay a fine or go to court and face a bigger fine.

However, when I think of bootlegging; I think of bootlegging alcohol. But that is probably because I now live in North Carolina; which is home to NASCAR and as legend would have it, NASCAR was birthed from bootleggers of alcohol trying to outrun the police!


I’m a little confused about the whole bootlegging thing. I buy my music and I buy my movies. I don’t illegally download any of them off of the internet for the simple fact that it’s like stealing.

That is enough to make me not want to do that. Call me goodie-goodie or whatever; stealing is wrong no matter how you’re doing it.

However, I often do take the cds and dvds that I’ve bought and download them onto my computer, and it’s not unusual for me to burn an extra copy if something happens to the original cd or dvd.

Is this still bootlegging, or is it just being prudent?


I guess most people today think of bootlegging and they think of pirating DVD’s and movies off the Internet. I, however, think of something totally different.

Of course, this is probably due to the simple fact that I know people who are actually referred to as ‘bootleggers’ because they earn a living bootlegging moonshine. Yep, friends, out here in the sticks this is still a real thing.

It wasn’t very long ago that a liquor still close to my house was blown to bits by the government. Of course, I guess they didn’t know about the five or six others that are spread out about the county.

Although you can probably get liquor cheaper at the liquor store now, a lot of people simply prefer the taste and heat of moonshine. Others, I think, just like jabbing at the government.


@cardsfan27 - I understand your point as far as the individual level is concerned, but my point concerns what happens that people that say sell hundreds of dvd's and make hundreds or thousands of dollars off of the movie studio's or band's intellectual property. Anymore bootlegging is so bad that it is severely hurting the movie studios and this is a major reason why they try and squash everything no matter how small.

I am sure that bands and movie studios could not care less about one person bootlegging their property and that they simply raise a fuss to scare them out of doing it again. However, severe penalties have to occur for someone that makes a lot of money and markets the bootlegged dvd's in mass production.


@matthewc23 - Although that warning label at the beginning of movies seems severe, it is the absolute maximum which can occur. In most cases when someone bootlegs a dvddvd, they get a cease and desist letter telling them so simply not do it again.

If it continues to occur, then penalties could be assessed. However, it is very rare for someone to be prosecuted and sent to prison for bootlegging movies or music. Usually the worst that happens is that whatever has been bootlegged or downloaded has to be turned over to the people that hold the trademark.


@TreeMan - As far as criminal conviction goes, as long as the person does not mass produce the bootlegs it is considered the equivalent of theft, but not from the criminal sense.

Bootlegging dvd's or music is considered theft of intellectual property and holds the person liable in civil courts. If it is proven that the person showed "willful intent" in stealing the intellectual property then the court orders them to pay damages. I do not know of any specific damages that someone has had to pay, but I do know that the FBI warning label at the beginning of many dvd's and vhs cassettes warned that someone could be fined up to 250,000 dollars and serve five years in jail.


I have always wondered what penalties are for bootlegging music or a dvd. I have heard stories of people being threatened with a lawsuit or facing penalties, but I have never heard exactly a penalty for doing so. I wonder if it is as serious an offense as it is made out to be or if it is just a small crime that gets a lot of publicity.

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