The criminalization of Chinese counterfeit goods in the global market calls for a fresh approach to understanding well‐established binary distinctions such as legal/illegal, licit/illicit, and formal/informal. Based on a multi‐sited ethnography in China, Paraguay and Brazil, I examine five commodity chains of two products – toys and watches – and their regulatory frameworks in terms of merchandise status, business formality, and international transaction legality. Certain merchandise produced in the formal economy has no legal definition a priori, but legal variability starts when goods leave the factory. A great interchangeability of a product's legal status existed along its chain according to governance structures, legal cultures, geographical domains, and power relations. These findings suggest that the illicit is a relational category and the so‐called criminal economy is not a segmented market, but part of a global process integrated with formality and marked by great legal variability within and between nations.