201007251842.jpgby special correspondent Bruce Lidl

Techland Presents: Comics and Digital Piracy

A “hastily thrown together” panel on the last day of the Con made for some lively discussion about the realities and moralities of pirated comics.

Moderator Douglas Wolk from Techland.com, a long time music critic, is concerned that the comics industry will fall into the self-destructive pattern that the music industry pursued, spending enormous sums of money to try to get the digital genie back in the bottle, without doing much of anything to slow file-trading down and instead alienating many of its most ardent fans.  Wolk also observed that there is now a generation of comics fans that is accustomed to having a digital copy of every new comic released each week, in an open format, on that Wednesday, for free.  Not to mention the fact that essentially every comic book ever published in the US is just a few mouse-clicks away from a free download.

Jake Forbes and Deb Aoki discussed in detail the particular permutations of the large “scanlation” community of manga readers that grew specifically out of the unavailability of so many Japanese comic books in English.  While things are changing, the overall situation remains as the huge output of the Japanese comic industry only trickles out slowly to non-Japanese readers.  As hard-core manga fans themselves, Forbes and Aoki claimed they could understand the passion of the fans, but at the same time, as editors, they were dismayed by the arrogance and short-sightedness of “scanlators” that self-righteously ignored the desire of creators to make their own decisions about the distribution of their work.

David Steinberger from comiXology, the provider of the technology behind both Marvel and DC’s iOS offerings, diagnosed the situation primarily in terms of the disconnect between the speed of technological developments online and the business pace of the large companies and their licensing requirements.  He would love to do more day and date releases, he said, but the fear of cannibalizing direct market sales, and the “bottle neck” of his small start-up’s capabilities continues to slow the trend in that direction. Steinberger considers those fears to be “irrational” as his best sellers tend to be comics that have a higher mainstream profile from movies, such as WANTED, HELLBOY, KICK-ASS, etc.  To him, that demonstrates that digital sales come from non-traditional comics fans, precisely not the people in their local shop on Wednesdays.  The non-US component of his customers (over 40%) would also seem to argue against a corollary between digital purchasers and hardcore weekly fans.  Steinberger also contends that unauthorized downloads should not be equated simply with lost sales, as in his experience, people tend to grab a great deal of free stuff without ever actually consuming all of it, or certainly ever thinking of buying it. Steinberger does betray an acute understanding that his business exists in a challenging position, having to work within the often byzantine restrictions from publishers while at the same time competing with free. ComiXology’s answer is overwhelmingly based on quality of experience, or their ability to create a digital version of the comic pamphlet that is qualitatively better than what a pirate can provide, and that requires far less technical know-how.

None of the panelists directly responded to Wolk’s concerns about the wisdom of maintaining an adversarial relationship with downloaders, as in his view, strict enforcement has proven utterly ineffective for slowing unauthorized distribution, A punishment-based approach can also be problematic because it overlooks the possible positive effects of widespread unauthorized distribution, particularly around brand-building, awareness, and the sale of licensed properties.  Or to the notion that the distinctly collectible (sometimes even investment) properties of physical comics differ so radically from digital comics as to make any conflation meaningless.  After all, digital comics usually cannot be re-sold or shared with friends, and they may even become unreadable if the tech provider goes out of business down the line.