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.
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.
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.
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.
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.