Unlicensed sports cards have been around for some time. These cards have hoped to satisfy customer demands for more issues of athletes. For many years, Topps held a virtual monopoly on the production of gum baseball card issues and knockoffs were common. More brands ultimately surfaced, beginning primarily with the introduction of Fleer and Donruss in the marketplace in 1981. Even more companies followed later in the decade, leading to a full-fledged baseball card war. But despite the numerous brands that were popping up left and right, collectors continued to make their own cards.
These custom cards are still being made today with popular subjects including Patrick Mahomes, Zion Williamson, Aaron Judge, Saquon Barkley and other current, young stars.
Many things have contributed to the rise in off-brand, homemade cards. The largest factor, perhaps, is that the ability to create such cards has gotten easier. With tools such as Photoshop and high-quality printing capabilities, it’s easier than ever for collectors to make their own trading cards. Another factor is the continued interest in rookie cards. With a premium being placed on cards of popular players that are just entering the professional ranks, rookies have been attractive targets.
Collectors making their own cards? Seems like a great idea, right? Maybe in theory. If a collector is simply making cards of players for his/her own enjoyment, there usually aren’t any legal issues. But the bigger problem is that these cards are routinely bought and sold on eBay and through other avenues. Further muddying the water is that unsuspecting collectors and fans may not even realize they are purchasing illegitimate cards if they aren’t paying close enough attention. Some are sold to people who are just getting back into collecting and don’t realize they’re not buying anything of real value.
“As a shop owner in Kansas City, we routinely get these cards coming in the shop, specifically the Mahomes cards,” stated Jamie Jaycox, a partner at Northland Baseball Cards in Gladstone, MO. “Buyers don’t understand they are buying unlicensed counterfeit cards that are essentially worthless.”
The problem, of course, is that the creators have not paid for the licensing to be able to produce these cards. For one thing, they haven’t obtained a player’s permission to include him/her on the card. For another, they haven’t obtained league or team licensing to include team logos. More than likely, they haven’t compensated the photographer or secured rights to use the photo. And for yet another, they haven’t secured the right from the league to produce licensed cards — something that legitimate companies like Topps and Panini have to pay handsomely for. Yet another dicey issue occurs when collectors copy designs or trademarks from legitimate card companies, such as Panini’s “Rated Rookie” label.
So Collector X creates a card of Player Y, sells it, and you’ve got all sorts of legal problems. Well, you should, anyway.
You might be inclined to think this is a small time business. After all, if a collector creates an off-brand card, sells it for $2, who cares? The problem with that line of thinking is two-fold. First, regardless of the amount these are still cards being created illegally. And second, the reality is that while many cards are inexpensive, some have sold for significantly more. Even with some listings that declare the cards as art, custom, or ACEO cards of recent No. 1 NBA Draft pick Zion Williamson have routinely sold for $20 and $30. Others without that designation have sometimes sold for hundreds of dollars (though, it is unclear whether actual money was exchanged for some for some of those sales). Some sellers are clearly selling hundreds of them in a relatively short time frame and making a tidy profit.
“I’ve been filing copyright violation reports on the listings I see,” Jaycox told us. “But eBay’s policy is ‘we can’t tell you the resolution.’ Yet the next day, same sellers, more listings.”
So, why don’t card companies shut the makers of these cards down? Mostly because it can be a time-consuming and sometimes costly hassle. There’s often a fine line between “art” cards and those that violate the law. In some cases, card makers have been known to write cease and desist letters to those who go over the line. Lawsuits, though, require lawyers who typically don’t work cheap. In the past, the problem may not have seemed big enough to worry about but as the rookie card business booms and more people enter or re-enter the hobby, the issue is definitely on their radar.
Panini America has already filed at least one federal lawsuit against a Northern California seller who was peddling custom cards on eBay, claiming trademark infringement. In an email to Sports Collectors Daily, Panini CEO Mark Warsop seemed to indicate they may be ready to act on others who deal in customs, if they haven’t already. “Panini is aware of this growing problem,” he told us. “However, I’m unable to comment on ongoing and pending litigations.”
An important point to mention is that companies are also required to protect trademarks. In short, if they realize their trademark is being used improperly by others, they need to take some action to try to prevent it. As mentioned here, failing to protect a trademark could mean they ultimately lose the rights to it. Thus, even if a company doesn’t necessarily care about a collector creating a few dozen cards with their trademark, they still need to take steps to stop them from doing so.
Ken Seitel, who oversees trading cards for the NBA, stated the league was aware of the custom cards being sold but deferred any comment to Panini.
Collectors buying these custom cards are left sort of in the middle. Sometimes they see an attractive looking card of a player who has few licensed cards and decide to add it to their collection. By doing so, however, they are enabling artists of these products to profit illegally. The obvious answer to ending it is that a crackdown on this sort of activity is needed. But until collectors selling the cards are really threatened and sites like eBay crack down on these sorts of listings, they don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.