In This New Digital Age of Comics, Can Piracy Become Profit?

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It's not the first time the topic was discussed, and heaven knows it won't be last, but Mark Waid's keynote speech at the Harvey Awards at Baltimore Comic-Con last weekend certainly brought the topic of filesharing bubbling to the top of the electronic stew pot of bulletin boards and other electronic media.  In it, he suggested that rather than try to crush filesharing, the industry try to find ways to make it work for them.  In one sentence, his message was "filesharing is not a problem...itís an opportunity"  He discussed the motivation behind the downloaders, describing them not as people who "like stealing" but a change in the mindset of society, who are now embracing sharing. He complimented the people in comics as "the most creative medium in America", and said that if such a community could not find a way to turn the filesharing community and the internet in general into something where creators can benefit, the solution may not exist.

To say he was met with reticence is an understatement.  Bleeding Cool reports a conversation with Sergio Aragones which became heated, and Mark reported later a number of conversations that centered around stopping filesharing as the strategy, as opposed to transforming it.

After the folks at CBR posted the speech in full, along with Mark's commentary, a protracted conversation started on the electric-type Twitter between Mark and Secret Six's Gail Simone, she of the rapier wit and outspoken opinions.  With additional comments from former Blue Beetle and current Leverage scribe John Rogers, the conversation was a very interesting look into the various sides of the issue.  No one seated at the extreme points of "freedom of information" and "You're going to go to hell with hair on your palms", they presented the more reasonable points of "We deserve to be paid" and "If we come up with a good system, we WILL."

Gail started with a comment on a recurring theme in many filesharing discussions: 

"Mark, I love ya, but why do these speeches invariably act like those opposing piracy are somehow not AWARE that the genie is out? ...I know it's not your point, my gripe was how each of these speeches starts with, 'Get used to it, it's not going away.'  like we are all flat-Earthers. We know it's not going away. We can have a principled stand in disagreement, right?  There's a difference between denial and disagreement and the speech blurs that distinction."

Mark countered that with his own experiences from the weekend:

"You'd be amazed at how many people in that room told me I'm wrong, we can still rebottle the genie. Thus, my emphasis. ...you would be ASTOUNDED at the number of folks in that room who don't accept that as a fact. A-STOUND-DED. "

The conversation expanded slightly to include the webcomic publishers, some of which have turned their sites into a nice living.  While Mark didn't directly address them in his speech, they are an example of how money can be made, and notoriety and even accolades can be achieved in this new Wild West of internet publishing. 

When the conversation ended (I believe a new video of a cat chasing a butterfly was uploaded and we all got distracted), no mud was slung, no enemies were made, and all in all the participants behaved better than the people who usually pop up to comment when the great wheel spins and this topic draws eyes, usually after another sharing site is shut down.

What is fascinating in the couple of years that this topic has reared its head, is that we've already seen the scenario run, in a mathematically similar fashion, in the music industry.  Music sharing websites became prevalent, songs were ripped to MP3.  Pro-sharers maintained they were helping to preserve records that may never be reprinted, never bothering to give an explanation why albums that had been released to CD, some that very day, were also being ripped and uploaded.  The record companies, fearing they'd lose control of their catalogs (and their profits) attacked the sites with a battery of white-lipped attorneys, only to find their battles eerily reminiscent of those between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra; cut off one head, and two take its place.  Endless high-profile lawsuits upon college kids and soccer moms only served to send public support away from the record companies.  Each news story about filesharing only served to let more and more people know that filesharing existed.  Many wondered if it was too late to find a way to profitize this new market, if indeed it was possible to bring people back to the idea of paying for music.

And then along came Apple, Inc.

Jumping on the lead horse and pulling forcefully on the reins, Apple and the juggernaut that is iTunes showed that even with millions of files already in the hands of downloaders, people were still more than willing to pay for something that they could get for free with a little work.  And while copying and downloading did not disappear (and never will), it was proven that money can still be made, control can still be maintained and creators rewarded in this new electronic medium.  In short, rather than try to cram the genie back in the bottle, Apple thought to ask for its three wishes.

Apple did what the downloaders could not - they made the act of downloading music easy and accessible to everyone.  To pirate a song, one had to a) find a site that offered the sharing software b) get it installed (and hope it wasn't virus-laden)  c) find a source for the song in question d) hope you can find a full copy with no errors e) grind your teeth when you found out the song is full of pops and volume top-outs, and recorded off a copy of the album that was used to prop up a table.  That's not even counting the people who didn't know filesharing existed, or couldn't get it to work, or simply chose not to because, to ironically quote a past President, "it would be wrong".

The parallels between the music and comics model are astounding.  The hesitance of the companies to embrace the new technology, the high-profile shutdowns and legal actions against websites that promoted sharing, and only very recently, the furtive first attempts to embrace the change. 

So why do people download?  Gail pointed to the elephant in the room and asked the simple question, "Is illegal filesharing morally wrong?"  The silence was deafening.  People who would never dream of just walking into a comic shop and grabbing books off the shelves (and not just because they could get caught) see no problem with downloading the same books at home.  Why is that?

It seems to be, since they're not dealing with a physical object, the person's mindset changes.  You're not holding a thing in your hands, you're downloading a file that sits on your computer in some magical way that no one really understands, it doesn't feel real.  Many have compared it to what's colloquially known as "Byrne-stealing", the act of reading a book in the shop and putting it back on the shelf. People (like the creator for whom it is named) who claim that to be theft are usually met with snickers and virtual shakes of the head - the book is still there, no one's walked out with it, how can it be theft?  But in all honesty, for all the reasons people can come up with, people download things because they have decided that the physical "legal" copy is too expensive, or at least more expensive than the value they have personally ascribed to it.  And since there is a relatively simple alternative with a reasonably small risk of discovery, they take advantage of it.  The explanation may be flowery, but the reason is mercenary.  The changing societal shift to "sharing" that Mark touts is indeed valuable, but it also allows some to decide that it's less egregious to download a book.  The upside and downside of the curse, as they described it on the old Friday the 13th series.

The scanners will defend their side of the process as well.  Some scanners maintain they are helping preserve the golden and silver ages of comics, scanning and distributing books that will never be reprinted.  They crow about the freedom of information, some talk about striking a blow against the high prices of comics, and they all maintain that if you download a comic and find that you like it, you should go buy a copy and support the creators and companies.  And for every person who believes one or all of those statements, there are people who are just too cheap to pay for the books.  

When about whether she'd rather see filesharing eliminated or changed to a more profitable model, Simone replied with the exact position I've held throughout years of discussions on this topic.

"I believe the majority of people who fileshare illegally would stop if there was reasonable and convenient option."

That's the right answer, or at least the best version of the right answer we're going to hear, and seems to be what Waid was trying to get across as well.  Both Marvel and DC have now jumped into the digital publishing world, making a limited number of the new releases, and a larger number of back issues available online via the iPad, Pod and Phone, as well as on the web via the Comixology.  But downloading still exists, and while sales of e-comics is brisk, it's scarcely on iTunes levels yet.  So is that a sign that the same model won't work, and we need to go back to attempting to nip filesharing in the Fifean bud?

And as Waid has related, many, TOO many people in comics think the problem is fixable.  Glenn Hauman of comicmix.com tells the story of a meeting he had with DC several years ago.  He presented them with a spreadsheet, made up by the comic scanners, logging the percentage of DC's back catalog that had been scanned and uploaded to the web.  At the time it was about 90% of the post-Crisis, and 75% pre-Crisis.  That stat is up to about 97% in total right now, with just under 1,100 books needed to have the entire output of DC Comics scanned.  They chose to do nothing.

And so help me, if DC made their own copies of those books available for a reasonable price, the number of people who already downloaded them that will pay for them, as Waid said, would likely be staggering.  And that doesn't count the people who DON'T already have downloaded copies.

DC, Marvel, and more than a few other companies have recently made the jump to the downloadable comic model.  But largely they're just sticking a toe in the water.  And as fun as the iProducts are, you don't have one hundred percent control of the item you bought.  You can't download it and burn it to a DVD and put it in the bookshelf.  And to many people, most of these digital comics are still too expensive.  The same sense that an electronic copy of something doesn't really exist is the same reason many people can't see paying the same (or nearly so) price for an electronic copy of a book as for a physical copy.  Marvel was actually charging MORE than cover price for the experimental Iron Man Annual for the honor of getting it on your iPad the same day it was released in stores.  As a show of support for the idea, I came out in favor of that; if they expect to get that for every issue, they've soaked up a few too many cosmic rays. 

The physical printing of a comic book is the single most expensive part of producing a comic book, according to Waid.  So if that expense is removed, it's perfectly reasonable to presume that the price of an electronic book can be much less and still be profitable.  A recent poll by Vaneta Rogers on this site revealed that the magic price that everyone considers "fair" for an e-comic is 99 cents. Is that a high enough price to keep a comic profitable for a publisher?  I'll be honest; I have no clue.  I think it is. After all, they currently sell those comics to comic shops for between $1.60 and $2.60 on average, so minus the printing costs, $.99 seems reasonable. But like that scene in The Hudsucker Proxy, after the accountants determine that their amazing new product can make money if priced at 79 cents, it's all too easy for someone to get greedy and add a "1" to the price, and cause the customers to stay away in droves.

The perfect solution has yet to be found.  It may not be found for years.  This is not an easy topic, and no accords will be reached, either here or in the comment thread that follows this column.  There's the question of the comic shops, and how the increase of e-comics would affect them, either to the positive or negative.  There's the possibility that some comics that couldn't find an audience in the comic shops might thrive online.Waid  even seemed to suggest such a thing in his Saturday Irredeemable panel at Baltimore Comic-Con.  A title he thought sure would succeed, a crime title called High Rollers, couldn't find a market in the South because of its all-black cast.  Might such a book, reprinted as an electronic comic find an audience on the Web, where shows like The Wire still have a rabid following?

Waid has promised to present a number of ideas to attempt to take advantage of the possibilities that the new downloading culture can provide us.  I look forward to hearing them.

SO what do you think? Sound off!

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