by Bruce Lidl


If nobody cares about DRM on digital comics, why does everybody keep bringing it up?

San Diego 2013 was unquestionably a triumph for digital comics heavyweight comiXology, with a stream of announcements of new initiatives and new partnerships. Chip Mosher may have been one of the busiest men at the Con this year, pumping out press releases right and left. Currently, comiXology stands with seemingly no credible comics-focused competitors any longer.

Nonetheless, there was one issue that seemed to continually vex the comiXology spokespeople, as CEO David Steinberger and co-founder John D. Roberts found themselves having to answer the dreaded “DRM question” at all of the many panels I saw them speak at. To their visible frustration, Steinberger and Roberts repeated the comiXology case for Digital Rights Management on digital comics. According to them, DRM is not only still needed, but is in fact a “value add,” by helping them create a compelling experience for their customers. The current comiXology system underscores their “cloud” philosophy of buying comics, that allows readers access to their entire collection from any approved device that can connect online. A “seamless experience,” that avoids any “frustrating” or “complicated” need for readers to manage their own files, or to deal with what Roberts referred to as a “pile of hard drives” in order to have a digital comic library. Steinberger was particularly dismissive of the critics of DRM, characterizing them as a “tiny minority” of “tech-enthusiasts” whose outspokenness and passion on the subject does not accurately reflect its real relevance.

Unquestionably, though, the recent announcement by Image comics that they would be offering some future digital comics for sale without DRM has brought the topic to fore again. Every publisher I spoke to at the Con expressed real surprise about what Image was doing. Topher Alford from Dark Horse told me his first thought when he heard about Image’s DRM decision was simply “crazy,” and that he was still trying to process it. Chris Ross from Top Shelf had a different perspective, as he reminded me that Top Shelf had released their own title Double Barrel without DRM back in January, expecting it to cause a lot of discussion, but that never really materialized.

Everybody is definitely keeping an eye on what Image is doing, but Ron Richards, Image’s Director of Business Development, did not see the DRM issue in black and white. For him, providing DRM-free comic purchases was mostly about “total choice” as Image will continue to work with protected formats on iBooks, Google Books, Amazon, Nook and comiXology. DRM-free is just another option for those customers who do demand full control over their purchases. According to Richards, the feedback has been great “from both customers and creators” and he is bullish on digital going forward, predicting that revenue from that sector will rise from 12% of Image in 2012 to 15% in 2013, while not “cannibalizing” print sales. And he’s excited about the trend of digital first publications coming to print, especially as it gives fans a special or archival book that can fulfill the, often important, role of “fetish object” for fans.

Richards and Image are unmoved by the traditional argument of publishers that without DRM, digital purchases will be pirated all too easily, ultimately reducing revenue. There are, of course, even more outspoken voices denying the impact of comics piracy, like Mark Waid, who has maintained consistently that DRM is essentially pointless, and he in fact ended his participation on the Digital versus Print panel by yelling “Viva piracy!” But Waid is not the only lauded creator to question the logic of DRM schemes in San Diego. Ironically, it was the Eisner Award winning Becky Cloonan who revealed at the comiXology Submit panel that her digital comics only started appearing on piracy sites after they were published in a protected form by comiXology. Since she really considers digital comics, even her critically acclaimed Ink and Thunder line, to be more of an awareness generating tool for her more expensive print publications, piracy was “unpleasant, but not a big deal, really.”


  1. I was debating DRM with someone, who said, “Well, what if something happens to the internet? I’ve lost all my comics.”

    My response, “If something happens to THE INTERNET, you have much bigger problems.”

    I’ve yet to have an experience that makes whether or not something is DRM relevant to my comic reading. I buy (and publish) on ComiXology…and I’m also loving the experience of buying downloads from The Panel Syndicate.

  2. It will be interesting to see how these things pan out.

    The notion of offering both versions – a DRM version that can be re-downloaded to multiple devices any time and all the time, as well as a nonDRM version that can only be downloaded one time and must be re-purchased if lost, is certainly a “give everybody what they want” sort of thing. Other than whatever time the people who scan and stitch the print comics into pirated digital files spend, everything else remains the same.

  3. I think the option should made available because this service can be discontinued at any moment. I don’t want to keep every comic, but there are some titles I’d like to keep and hand down or give to friends to read.

  4. Seems to me the best way would be to just look at how it’s done with music.

    If I want music, I can buy from iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, etc. or just download from indie artists who put their own stuff online. Wherever it’s from, I can drag it all into iTunes and it syncs between devices. Depending on where I got it, it may also be cloud-downloadable by default. And it’s got metadata built-in, so I don’t have to manually enter the song title, artist name, etc. Music piracy happens, but it hasn’t destroyed legitimate sales.

    There’s certainly things to be worked out in terms of standards and formats and whatnot, but why do people think this is so hard? Comixology does a lot of things right, but the idea that DRM is necessary for a “compelling” or “seamless” experience does not hold water.

  5. I notice that when I steal music from the hard drives of people whose computers I work on for free, sometimes I get the “please enter the password of the ITunes ID” thing and sometimes I don’t. What is the difference there – is one purchased through ITunes, and the other just imported?

  6. DRM is not a “value add” for the consumer, but for the distributor. The value add for the consumer that ComiXology cites is cloud access and cross-device syncing. I agree, it’s very nice — but you don’t need DRM for that.

    Also, it doesn’t take the entire internet disappearing for DRM-locked access to become a problem. All it takes is a title to be withdrawn from distribution for some reason: A contract expires, a legal dispute arises, a court issues an injunction, a work that has passed into the public domain is retroactively put back into copyright by a change in law and the publisher/distributor loses the right to offer it.

    Or the distributor can go out of business, or discontinue a service as it refocuses on another market. Even if they intend to offer a migration path in the event of a shutdown, there’s no guarantee they’ll follow through (or be *able* to follow through).

    In cases like this, if your media is locked down with DRM, you lose your library except for what’s on your device right now. If it’s not, and you have local copies that you *can* move around, you’re fine, even if you replace your old hardware.

  7. Here, lemme answer the headline for you:
    DRM exists for no other reason than to maximize profits for unimaginative corporations unwilling or unable to adapt to the 21st century economy.
    The end.

  8. Have you read Cory Doctorow’s “Content”?
    He has it for free for download in just about every format available on Craphound.
    It’s all about why DRM is a faulty idea.
    He’s proven it (as has Neil Gaiman). People will read a free digital copy, and then buy a print copy, as well as other books by the same author. (My copy of “Content” was free, but I bought the sequel, Context. And I’ve read some of his fiction.)

    Mark Waid (I think) proved it when Boom! placed North Wind for free on MySpace, and then Diamond sold out of the first issue. (CrossGen proved it earlier, but no one was really talking about digital comics back then.)

    The cloud argument is faulty. I bought a copy of A Distant Soil from Image the day they went DRM-free. I have four formats I can download. Am I limited to the number of times I download it? The number of computers I can download it to? (I haven’t tried.) Isn’t Image, via my login, keeping track of what I own, and allowing me cloud access just like Comixology?

    OR… I can store it in the cloud myself.

    I’ll even buy the DVD-ROM edition, which can be locked to prevent piracy, just so I own the content and can access it readily.

    What I really want is to be able to go to a digital library, create a volume, have it printed and shipped to me within a week.

  9. All Digital Rights Management does is take away rights from the customer. The provider decides where and how you can access your stuff and if they go out of business, there is no legal requirement for them to continue to provide access.

    I also feel that, since you are not really buying comics on comiXology but merely licensing access to them, they should not be allowed to use the word “buy”.

  10. It remains offensively insulting that publishers think they can rent digital comics for the same price as selling a print copy. I will entertain paying full price for Image’s (or others’) non-DRMed ones. I will never throw my money down the drain for Comixology’s current hobbled offerings.

  11. The golden price on the internet is free and people will find free alternatives on the internet to buying comics. When Viz cracks down on one scanlation site(recently another one or more springs up(in this case Soon Funimation will crack down on sites that scanlate Attack on Titan, but more sites will spring up because the demand for free manga extremely high. the Becky Cloonan anecdote is a glimpse into the greater piracy war up ahead and my prediction is print and digital is going to even out; Digital for the serialized works and longer GNs will be printed.

    Torsten, that is a great idea…a POD service where you can compile your own anthology of comics and get it sent to your home. It prints money while i’m thinking of it!

  12. Kelson is 100% right.

    Look at amazon and iTunes. You can buy the music, have the cloud expericed, download music whenever, and so on with those apps just like comixtology. And no DRM.

    DRM on digital comics is all about maintaining 100% control over the readers experience and platform lock in. If comixtology had no DRM it’s far easier to switch who you buy from with no impact. That’s bad for them long term. However looks at other companies that got out of digital comics and people that bought from them really hurt as the apps are no longer supported.

    I buy only digital comics, and support players like image and 2000ad for having modern solutions that don’t include DRM. Legacy players like comixotolgy really need to update the platform to keep up with the times if they want to maintain market position.

  13. I published a book a couple of years ago. PDF of the book was available on file-sharing sites before hardcopy was in the bookstores.

    I think free or cheap downloads, with print in graphic novel format, is the future. It just seems to be what the market wants.

  14. DRM is a joke for some countries.

    At least where I live, downloading illegal copies is fast, easy and effortless.

    Talking about DRM and comixology is absurd. I only use their application for some free comics and those free Marvel #1s from a while back.

    If I really like something I buy the hard copy. Nothing beats the smell of paper, even this semi-plastic one :)

  15. Comic creators should have collective responsibility over their products. They should not put DRM on their products since they didn’t create their product their customers did. That’s how the collective of artists and writers should care about their fans. After all DRM should not be used by rich capitalists like Disney and Warner when they owe the collective not the individual the product. After all they didn’t build the roads to bring comics to stores or the internet infrastructure that isn’t thiers and neither is the money they owe to the collective.

  16. I hope comic buyers support Image’s initiative; sales and profits are the only messages that seem to carry any weight with comic publishers. Most publishers are not listening to their readers about DRM, but publishers do listen to each other.

    Here’s more hoping: Money talks, comics rental walks.

  17. As a consumer, I have no problem with DRM on things that are rented. If I rent a movie on BluRay, I don’t care that it has tech built into it that would make it hard to copy. If I stream a movie from Netflix, I’m not bothered by the fact that they’ve wrapped it in DRM to prevent me from capturing and saving it. Because I only rented it: I don’t expect to be able to keep it. But if I “buy” something, I expect to be able to access it regardless of whether the store I bought it from is still there. DRM that requires my computer to check back with the store before I can read it, breaks that deal.

    As a (very small-time) creator, I hate that comics without DRM can and will be copied and distributed without the creators being compensated. But they can. And DRM will be defeated. And bad things happen to good people. And there’s never enough time. And so on. We just have to accept that reality, and figure out how to make our way within that world.

  18. How important is the consumer’s attitude toward the product? When people buy a publication despite it being available for free, it’s probably because they’re enthusiastic about the story, the experience of reading it, and might even be the kind of person who buys more copies to give away to friends. He has good feelings for the creators and publisher. He’s also likelier to let publishers package products as they wish.

    If the consumer regards the product as overpriced, throwaway entertainment that is often disappointing, but he keeps buying it, or he thinks that hardly anything is worth the price, he’ll always object to DRM. Consumer psychology might be as important as principles in determining what’s pirated.


  19. Yeah, what Steve said — there’s absolutely a benefit to picking and sticking with your preferred comics provider. Maybe you like the UI or the ease of cloud access, etc. But I see no reason why, if you’d like to switch providers, you can’t just drag your files into the new interface. I switch my entire music library from iTunes to Google Play to Amazon seemingly every year, as I get a new phone or a new set-top box or what have you. Music I buy from Google Play can be downloaded and re-uploaded to Apple. It’s certainly not an easy or fun process, but you can do it.

  20. Log another vote against DRM. I just don’t “support” anybody that’s doing that. This is when piracy serves its purpose.

    Conversely, love love love folks who are enlightened enough to trust a consumer. These I “support.”

  21. I think a good question is, how would no DRM change your digital comics reading experience? I assume most digital readers use comiXology, right? if the files sudden had no restrictions, what would you do? Move the files to your PC? Store them on a harddrive? Why would you do that? If the primary device for your consumption is also your storage, why is the extraneous chore of file management appealing? When is the last time anyone moved music files around? It all just seems to me like an antiquated notion of ownership, or a holdover from the collector market of print. I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that I can read comics on comiXology on any device I own. Why the heck do I need to download files and take up space? Seems strange.

  22. Actually, at least one person in this thread has said that he moves his music files around when he changes players. It’s no different than photos or other files that you want to access.

    Something like Dropbox would also pretty much allow you to get the files from any of your devices.

  23. Kwanza, it might seem strange for someone to want to possess the item they purchased, even as a digital file. I buy albums from iTunes and put them on a USB stick and play that through my hi end stereo. Or listen to them on my iPod. And I burn the same tunes onto a CD (!!!) and play that in my older car.

    As far as renting comics, I find it irritating that I need to log in to a company’s site to read something I purchased a few months ago. If I bought it, why isn’t it ‘mine’ and in my possession?

  24. I don’t want to rent my stuff, I want to own it. comiXology is doing good work but I strongly prefer not to be locked in. Hopefully Image is leading the way.

  25. Al™, I just plug my iPhone into my car. At home, I stream my entire collection into my high end stereo via Apple TV and iTunes Match. I also have not switched from Apple devices since the first iPhone. I hope I never have to. I think when it comes to “owning” digital files it is mostly an arguments of personal preference, and semantics.

    You log into iTunes (or whatever app you use) to play your music. What’s the real difference between that and cX? Because you can’t see the files taking up space on your HHD, or move them to a *shudder* an Android device.

    Again, I think it all comes down to personal preference (being irritated), as at the core, reading digital comics is not made or broken by the ability to file manage.

    I find it a serious mental challenge to understand that anyone needs to move a file when they are accesible/downloadable to your phone, tablet and PC. Where else do you need to have them?

  26. Kwanza — I would say it’s price. Especially for an older generation that fondly remembers owning physical copies of their music– and can still buy physical copies of almost everything you find on Comixology– the idea of paying retail for something that can be taken away from you (lost publisher licenses, etc.) is off-putting for many. When Hulu or Netflix lose the rights to “air” a show, it’s annoying, but not a huge issue, because I didn’t pay retail dvd prices to get the shows to begin with. If you could pay Comixology $8/month and read everything they had, this conversation wouldn’t be happening.

    It’s really not that hard to understand. And I don’t see how the notion of ownership is “antiquated.” You own your iphone, don’t you?

  27. I own a comic shop, so I’m primarily a print guy, but I see which way the wind is blowing so I signed up for a Comixology retail site (which we pay for). So far, about all it’s done is cost me money.

    Last year I started having some vision problems and found myself having a hard time reading my print comics, so I ended up becoming my digital stores biggest (and just about only) customer.

    At the retail end Comixology sucks because the sites they rent to retailers is built to work with “flash”, which Apple and Android devices no longer support. Retailers only get credit for the sale if it is made through the retailers web site, which they are making nearly impossible.

    At the same time they are now offering preorders and subscriptions but only on “their” site. They have also started sending e-mail solicits to my customers, but with links to their own site.

    As a digital comic customer, it’s a royal pain not being able to save and organize the books I’ve paid for, the way I want them. I’ve gone so far as to pick up a 32 gig Nook just to save my comics to, but even with that I still have to pull out a reading list every time I want to read a crossover story because I can’t save the books in a single file.

    Even Apple lets you create a playlist!

  28. I see both sides. I definitely see what Kwanzaa is saying – most of the things people who are against DRM (or against digital) are saying are either philosophical issues or “what if” scenarios. In terms of real, day-to-day usage, for most people, the current situation is as good as ownership.

  29. Ron, I’d love to hear more about your experiences with the comiXology retail shop. I’ve heard some rumblings from other comic shop owners, and I believe comiXology is planning on moving beyond the Flash structure, at least at some point. You can email me: [email protected]

  30. “I find it a serious mental challenge to understand that anyone needs to move a file when they are accesible/downloadable to your phone, tablet and PC. Where else do you need to have them?”

    Not all of us have that kind of time/bandwidth/net access, or the money for DRM-approved devices. Like that closed Apple ecosystem you seem to enjoy living in.

    Which is odd on the music end – didn’t Apple finally remove the DRM from their files a while ago? Looks like Apple managed to convince the publishers DRM was a waste of time anyway. Which is good, because I’m less likely to have iTunes decide I don’t own any of my music again in a botched software update on their end, nuking my library and forcing me to reconstruct it yet again.

    And Glenn, these aren’t “what-if” scenarios. Did you not see the Jmanga story on this very site? “JManga shuts down, taking all the manga you bought with it?” Bear in mind you’re also talking to a former Fictionwise “renter” here. And I guess “philosophically” I still owned my music when iTunes decided I didn’t, but that didn’t stop iTunes from wiping my library to prevent me from stealing the things I bought.

    The only people DRM slows down or hurts are the people who play by the rules. We’ve seen that over and over again. How many more lessons are required?

    Fortunately the means to break DRM show up almost as instantly as a any new scheme is created, so “still locked down” never lasts very long. So even on those rare occasions that I do throw any money at anything with DRM on it, I’m able to strip it off (or get the non-crippled version somewhere else) and actually own the thing I’ve paid for.

  31. I think Michael K makes some excellent points, and gets at what is really at the crux of the question. Are the DRM criticizers merely techy grumblers whose critiques are more philosophical than practical? Or are they just early adopters whose previous experiences have exposed them to the less beneficial aspects of DRM? comiXology firmly states that they are the former, and let’s face it, Steinberger actually has access to numbers the rest of don’t. But Image on the other hand is at least acknowledging that the latter depiction has some merit as well.

    The market will shake it all out eventually but there will be some interesting times in the meantime.

  32. Couple weeks ago my Wireless Access Point bit the dust. I couldn’t broadcast the internet through my house and the AP was down in the basement den where I didn’t have a computer. I was functionally without access to the internet at home.

    So that meant no reading comics from the previous week until I either a) found a couple hours to setup a direct connection from computer to modem or b) found some time to head out to a retail shop to pick up a new AP.

    Now obviously this wasn’t going to last a long time but between work and tons of other stuff to do there was no reading comics digitally during that downtime. kinda hashtag bunk.

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