Barcoding for Independent Games
Updated: Jan 21
Its seems that there is some confusion on the nature of the obtaining and using barcodes on a product, particularly relating to "second hand" barcodes. I've mentioned the process of barcoding in previous blogs so may be repeating myself, but think its a worthwhile risk in the cause of clarity. All the following advice is based on my personal understanding only and pertains to UK barcoding only.
A barcode is a series of numbers uniquely identifying your product for the purpose of retail, it is not technically the black and white lines which allow scanners to quickly read this number. There is no legal requirement to have a barcode whatsoever in the UK, Europe or anywhere else so far as I know. Their purpose is to identify products to retailers and if you intend to sell purely by Kickstarter or direct online sales you can skip them entirely. However, no retailer (including online retailers) or distributor will touch your product without a barcode so they can be worth the effort.
Firstly, there is only one place in the UK barcodes can be generated, GS1UK (www.gs1uk.org). A barcode is not like a QR code, for example, where you type in a word or number which is rendered into a scanable image. Rather, GS1UK will generate a batch of barcodes all registered in your company name which you can then register to specific products as and when you choose. Once you have registered a barcode with GS1UK it will forever attach to your product when scanned. If an app or website does generate a barcode image directly based on a typed in set of information in the fashion of a QR code generator it should be considered a novelty with no real retail usage.
Just to clarify, there are websites and apps that will generate a barcode image based on a number sequence that you enter. The purpose of such images is purely personal or novelty in nature. For example if you wished to barcode a card file so you could digitally record the contents of your storage boxes and then scan and search them with your smart phone's barcode reader (see Big Bang Theory episode 17 season 2). These barcode images can be suitable for retail usage but only if you wanted a separate image of a number code that you already had the registered usage of. What you can not do is decide your new game has a code you made up for it, punch it into a generator, print it out onto your box and put it on a shelf in a shop. This is because the primary purpose of GS1UK is to register your code as uniquely attached to your product, otherwise multiple products could have identical barcodes which is annoying and confusing at best, out and out fraud at worst. Do not make up your own number, use these sites to generate an image attached to that number then use that barcode, it is not ok.
To register with GS1UK you need to provide your estimated turnover in money and number of product units since the price of using GS1UK is not a single one off cost but a yearly membership based on level of usage. This is itself potentially confusing since you pay for one years membership which covers any barcodes you generate in that year forever. If you want one you can join, generate the barcode and then quit, but if you ever want a second code with the same company registration you need to maintain your membership. So, if you're intending to do a project and take a year out before your next one you'll need three years membership for two codes. The lowest level of registration is a little over £100 and gives you access to 1000 barcodes. So you may be wondering if you want only one or two can't you have one for £1 rather than 1000 for £100? Good question, the answer is no but, and, yes if.
No from GS1UK, but it is apparently legal to take money to register your barcode according to somebody else's wishes. For example, I currently have 1000 barcodes from GS1UK starting "Man O Kent Games", one is registered to the details of SSO and one to SSO: First Captain Expansion, 998 are blank. Once I register the details to a barcode no-one can change them so you give me some money, I register my next barcode as your product, send you the image of the barcode and off you go. So long as we are both fine with the company part of the barcode reading "Man O Kent Games" then, yes if. Unsurprisingly, some companies have sprung up with intentionally neutral names who will do exactly this for you. You pay them, for example, £15 for 5 barcodes, they fill in the details you give them via their membership with GS1UK and send the barcode on to you. So the question will be is this legal, and if it is, is it a good idea?
To read the sites of the various companies doing it, unsurprisingly, yes it absolutely is and it isn't that uncommon. Generally I'm always deeply un-reassured by a website that feels the need to explain exactly why what its doing is technically legal, especially one that quotes the specific recent court case which argued in their favour. The GS1UK website doesn't mention the availability of other options so its a little hard to get an objective answer here. I chose to register with GS1UK for extra peace of mind, my one question is how the selling on companies can accurately register the annual turn over of products their barcodes are attached to with GS1UK when they are selling those barcodes on? However, I have no reason to doubt the claims on their websites and assume that any legal issues would center on them committing fraud not you.
So, all barcodes in the UK come from GS1UK, if you're not getting them from GS1UK your getting them technically second hand, but they will only ever have been registered to your product. Legally and professionally it could be considered a light gray area which to avoid will cost you about £100.
Once a member of GS1UK you get a "library" of barcodes and three image generations every 12 months, which can be a little confusing. Your membership fee covers the cost of having your barcode numbers registered and maintained for all time not, oddly, the generation of the images that pertain to those numbers. If you actually want new barcodes at a rate greater than one every four months you'll need to pay a couple of pounds for the excess. The barcodes come in a variety of sizes so do check the space on your box before you generate the image because if you change your mind that still counts against your count of images.
In conclusion, I suspect the attitude of GS1UK is that for any new company setting up to produce products £100 is a fairly nominal fee, and to be fair, for most traditional businesses generating a product line it is. However, for a Kickstarting independent on a razor thin margin it can feel like a lot. The fact that GS1UK membership is yearly and they charge you for generating the images that you joined for can make you feel like they're taking you for a sucker. They are the official only game in town and after using them for a little while you get the feeling that they know it. I've heard no horror stories over second hand barcodes, but then I've heard no positive stories either. The economy of buying bulk and selling retail, which is what these companies are doing, makes enough sense that it feels like it should be legal.
My best advice goes like this. Barcodes are totally unnecessary until you go into retail or distribution, a stick on label is a perfectly acceptable manner of adding a barcode to a product. I would suggest that any retail agreement or certainly any distribution agreement which is worth less than the GS1UK membership is an extremely poor deal. Registering with GS1UK and generating a barcode can be done entirely digitally and very quickly. As such the best answer is to Kickstart, publish or otherwise produce your game with a space on the box sufficient for a barcode to fit into and if a distributor or retailer asks if you have a barcode say you will before it gets to them and invest in a GS1UK membership based on their income. That or budget your membership into your goal or unit price. I will say this; if a company did want to operate a semi-legal scam, new set up companies looking for their first ever barcode would make an excellent target.