So, About This Comic Piracy Stuff...

By | Tuesday, June 08, 2010 3 comments
It occurs to me that one subject that I've never really addressed here is that of piracy. (Well, of the intellectual property variety; there are plenty of posts about the "Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum" variety!) It's a topic I haven't touched on because, frankly, I'm not sure exactly where I stand on the issue. But maybe I can rectify that a bit by coalescing some of my thoughts into a coherent blog post. Bear with me.

I'll start by saying that, yes, I completely recognize why piracy is illegal. I totally understand how it can cut into monies earned in legitimate free enterprise, and how it can curtail a creator's impetus to develop new works. If I download a copy of a comic book that somebody's scanned and posted online, and I haven't paid for it, I'm taking someone's work and effort that they put into it and literally devaluing it to nothing. I'm saying, "Nope, I don't feel your comic is worth what you're asking for it, but I'm going to take it anyway."

And if enough people do that, then the creators are going to look at their book and see that the comic they spent hundreds (or thousands) of hours working on only earned them a pittance. They'll easily be able to say, "You know, we can make a lot more money for a lot less effort if we did something else."

I know this feeling first-hand, as I have yet to break even on my own book, not even counting the time I spent working on it. I'm okay with that because writing and publishing Comic Book Fanthropolgy was never about the money. I've got a regular job that I go to five days a week; I've got health insurance; I'm not even trying to "break into" the industry. It was, from the get-go, about doing something with my free time in the evenings and seeing if I actually had the skills and determination to write a whole book.

That being said, though, I'm less inclined to sit down and try to write another one because that was a hell of a lot of work and, having met my set goals, my next one would have to be about the money. At least in part.

I've also seen my work copied without credit. Whether or not it's illegal might be of some debate, but it does bear some similarities to piracy. What I received out of writing (some modicum of notoriety) was denied to me, and I expect I'd be less likely to write similar lengthy articles like that if it happened more than once.

All of which is to say that I get it. I get why it's wrong and why it's illegal.


I can honestly say that I see where consumers are coming from as well.

I first looked at torrents a little over five years ago, mainly to see first-hand what they were and how they worked. I felt like a late-comer to the discussion back then, as digital piracy had been a well-trod topic by 2005. But I sat down to figure out for myself how this stuff worked and what someone would actually get if they downloaded a comic book (or movie or whatever) illegally. I played around with some different software; I tried from different operating systems; I looked for different file formats, both new and old...

And it was even more simple to use than I had envisioned. Within hours, I was jumping around online pulling down and partaking of all sorts of different content. I wouldn't say I had it entirely mastered, but I was able to call up more obscure stuff than I had any interest in. It was, quite simply, dead easy to find just about anything I had a mind to look up. Comics that hadn't been re-published since their debut decades ago (like Adventure Comics, though some stories have made it into collections in more recent years), cartoons that have been vaulted because they're considered too racist for general viewing (such as the famous "Censored Eleven"), TV shows that I thought I had begun to imagine because I could find so little information about (like the far-too-short-lived Hot Fudge) and all sorts of other goodies. There was more available illegally than there was legally.

So if you're trying to track down something that doesn't essentially doesn't exist in something legally transferable, I see why you would look to illegal means of obtaining it.

I can also see why you would resort to it from a finances perspective. If I have no extra spending money and simply could not afford to buy Action Comics on an ongoing basis, then there's an obvious lure in getting it for free. The extreme version of this argument is: is it ethical to steal a loaf of bread to feed your children? Clearly, the comics and other entertainments we're talking about here don't rise to anything resembling parity with basic sustenance, but that's where the discussion stems from. "I couldn't afford the comic anyway, so downloading an illegal version is just like not giving $3.99 to the creators that would never have come from me anyway." The corollary to this is that, unlike the bread example, the creators still have a copy of their comic to sell to the next person.

Of course, then we get into really slippery slope territory. Because if you use the "well, the creators aren't missing the money that I couldn't afford to give it to them anyway" argument, it's not a far leap to "well, the creators aren't missing the money that I wouldn't afford to give it to them anyway." The thinking here is that you don't think the comic is worth the cover price, so you wouldn't buy it. And since you wouldn't buy, the creators were never going to get your money anyway. And since they were never going to get your money anyway, it's not hurting them if you take an illegal copy. Because, as before, they still have their own copy to sell to the next person.

Of course, we're pretty solidly in "justification" territory by this point.

But, you know, I still get it. I still get how people would go down that path. I still get how heady idealism can become more mutable. I get how "want" can become "need." I get that, given the pervasiveness of legitimately free content online, it can be hard to distinguish between what's legal and not.

Yes, I have downloaded comics illegally. Most of them in the process of just figuring out how things work, so I could at least speak to the subject intelligently and from experience. Some comics I pulled for research purposes (as in, research for honest-to-goodness printed-in-a-real-magazine articles) but those were only ones that I couldn't obtain otherwise. (Noteably, some old Newsboy Legion stories that had, at the time, never been reprinted.) And I'll admit, I have pulled down a few others that I shouldn't have. Which is precisely why I say that I get where these downloaders are coming from.

I don't think that gives them any more rights, and they're still clearly breaking the law, but I understand the mentality. And because that's my understanding of the situation, I don't think any legal efforts to crack down on specific sites will accomplish much. Folks will just scatter and someone else will eventually step in to fill the "need." Theoretically, publishers might be able to come up with some type of ink that doesn't play well with scanners -- either something that's visible to fans but doesn't get picked up by scanners, or something that's invisible to the eye but blotches out the art when it's scanned -- but that could well be cost-prohibitive. (And someone would find a suitable workaround soon enough anyway.)

I don't have any answers here. The IP holders are completely right that they deserve to be compensated for their work, and the law is clearly on their side. But unless they're able to deliver something better or of substantially higher quality than what can be found illegally, it's going to continue to be an issue.

Nertz! That really didn't help me sort out my thoughts on the matter at all.
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Jim Shelley said...

Excellent Post! I've watched this scene with some interest as well. A lot of people compare it to the mp3 download craze of the early 2000's but I don't think it's that similar as the methods for doing it are a little more involved (you have to figure out torrents, then find them, etc...) RapidShare seems to have moved into the top way to do this, but even that seems harder than Napster was back in the day.

Matt K said...

I think there's definitely an important distinction to make between people just trying to grab something for free, vs people circulating something that rightsholders have failed to make available.

"Scanlations" are one good example. Old video games which the publisher took off the market years ago are another.

I also immediately think of an, uhm, friend of mine who enjoys the Ghost in the Shell series and resorted to piracy to get a DVD. A DVD was available in the U.S., but it only included the Japanese language track, despite the fact that an English dialogue track had been produced and was available in other parts of the world. So this friend and another friend of his ordered a disc from another region, and produced two region 1 discs. One DVD was actually purchased, so piracy was involved, but then technically I imagine it was already illegal to subvert the loathesome region system; having crossed the threshold of legality why would my friend have spent more money on a second disc if he was going to remain afoul of the law anyway?

And perhaps more importantly, why would anyone really feel much sympathy when an artificially fragmented market leaves him or her stuck with a local distributor that proves too lazy to produce products that the consumer demands, even when such products already exist elsewhere and simply have to be made available to the local market?

The corporations in recording, publishing, etc., industries insist on standing on the letter of the law and that nothing else is relevant; per the old commercial "we give our customers what WE want, when WE'RE ready."

But among other reasons why this cuts no ice with most people, I submit that one should consider the fact that these same corporations love to play the "you've got to keep up" card when it suits them. Technology allows them to squeeze more productivity out of a smaller workforce? Then everyone surplus to requirements is immediately out the door, too bad, don't blame us, that's progress, you need to keep your skills up etc., etc. There's not even a pretense of sympathy; even if they're raking in profits the chance to increase their margin a little is adequate motivation to throw people over the side.

Yet they want consumers to be understanding when they fail to keep up with the pace of digital media, because they're too afraid of how change might disrupt their predictable income streams? WELCOME TO THE CLUB, a**holes.