Apr 13, 2013

The One Where Digital Piracy is Going to Kill Comic Books! Or Not.

The questions regarding the impact that piracy has on various industries has been one that has been broken down and analyzed a lot.  There are many who say that piracy has contributed majorly to the spiraling descent that the music industry has gone through over the past decade or so, and there are others who point out that not only is the logic used in those arguments flawed, but that there are many instances in which piracy has actually HELPED the artists that know how to use it to their advantage, as surprising as that may seem.

When Radiohead released their new album on Oct. 3, 2000, it debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, an album with heavy electronic, ambient, and experimental jazz influence, nothing like any album that had ever been #1. And all this was done without music videos, interviews, radio play, or touring (the main sources of publicity for most big artists).  

The publicity it gained before its release was through free online downloads, particularly Napster.  The record company decided to give out the entire album online to radio stations and selected sites, and as a result, 3 months before the release date, all of Kid A was available for free for all to download on Napster, where massive amounts people downloaded the album for free.  

This is why the RIAA worked so hard to shut down Napster, because if people have already downloaded an album, who would want to buy it? But despite the heavy downloading, the album still sold 210,000 copies in its first week, which suggests that downloading created enough publicity, and gave people a chance to become accustomed to a type of music they had never before heard, to make the album hugely successful, more then anyone could have possibly imagined.  

For Radiohead, mass downloading took the place of mass radio play, and made it a prime example of how free music actually increases sales.

Will you look at that?  When you are able to utilize the internet and adapt to the technological advances that your customer base uses, then there can be benefits!  

And recently the director of HBO's massive hit Game of Thrones (a series I just can't get into no matter how hard I try) came out and said that piracy has not hurt them at all, but actually HELPED them create buzz.  There are actually more people pirating then those watching.  Although we all know the measuring stick for how they rate viewerships is bullshit, so who knows how many people are really watching.

Now clearly that isn't going to be the case all the time.  I wrote about this last year in relation to music piracy, after Cracker frontman David Lowry attempted to shame an NPR intern because she had admitted to downloading music for free, while seeming to implicate her in the suicide deaths of two of his musician friends who had fallen on hard times due to the music industry's problems.


It was a despicable move by Lowry, but perhaps not surprising as he's always come off as kind of a douchebag to me.  Not that he didn't have some solid points in his manifesto of passive/aggressiveness, but I think when your tactic seems to be to infer that a college girl downloading music helped to kill people, it is a more than a little heavy handed and ridiculous.  Much like the bullshit talking point that buying bootleg DVDS on the streets helped fund terrorism and by extension, Osama Bin Laden.  

When you feel that you're not getting your point across, fear mongering is always a good move, I suppose.

Unbeknownst to me, apparently this piracy issue has always been a thorn in the side of the comic book industry.  Personally I find that hard to believe, if only because I would imagine comic books are pretty much piracy proof, as far as it concerns impacting sales from legitimate comic book fans.  I mean, there's a difference from getting a digital music or video file that can replicate the exact audio or video quality, and getting a digital comic book which is not close to the same experience.

With a digital music file you can rip a CD and have it in lossless FLAC format, and I'm sure there's probably a higher quality audio file than FLAC or OGG or .APE or whatever.  However you can get these in extremely pristine quality that can sound immaculate.  THAT could be considered a suitable replacement for the CD packaging that will take up a ton of room.  

Likewise with video files, you can acquire MKV bluray rips of movies that maintain impeccable video and audio quality of the movies, and I can see people saying "okay, this is much more convenient than having all this plastic and paper boxes taking up all this space in my apartment or house, when I can just have my entire collection on an external hard drive (or multiple, depending on how much you have).

With comic books though, maybe it's me, but that's just not the same.  If you're a comic book fan, and I mean a real legit comic book fan, raised on comics, you've passed down the knowledge and history just like it was passed down to you, is digital comics going to replace the feeling and emotion of going to the comic store, looking through the boxes of comics, and finding something you've been looking for?   Is it going to replace you holding the comic in your hand, turning the pages with your fingers?  Smelling the pages of a brand new comic book?   I'm not so sure.  At least not with the hard core crowd that makes up the majority of the readers and the base.

It's a convenience thing, for sure, and I'm sure there are many casual comic fans that would dive headfirst into the digital comic pool as a way of consolidating a collection and not having all that space taken up, however I wonder if those are people who would not go out to the comic store and buy them if they couldn't get them online for free?

See this is my main issue with people who scream about the doom & gloom that piracy is going to bring to *insert industry here*.  Not every download represents a lost sale, because many of those would not have bought it otherwise.  Perhaps many of them were not interested enough to buy them, but "they're free? Sure, I'll grab it, I mean, why not?" is the mindset of many I know.

And let's be honest, there are many who just flat out refuse to pay for anything that they can get for free, no matter what.  You could have an album priced at a dollar and they'd download the album for free and spend the dollar on something else that they couldn't get for free.  That's just the way things are, and I don't think anything will ever change that, unless those people just decide one day to change how they do things.

I wrote a blog post last year on rapper Elaquent who politely asked a blog to remove a pirated copy of his brand new album (only out two days) and while the blog did take it down, some of the commenters got angry at Elaquent for wanting his music removed when he was trying to sell it.   See THAT is a dick move.  You wanna bootleg, whatever, that's your choice to make, but if an artist asks politely to respect his wishes on this, that's not him being an asshole, that's him being reasonable.

At one point I was downloading 100% of what I got.  I wasn't paying for shit at one point, because of a few reasons that I outlined in my post about music piracy last year.  In short the reasons were as follows:

1. Price
2. Convenience
3. Perception of Artist as Rich.

The pricing of albums at one point was a ridiculous $20 each, and downloading it was much easier.  For a long time the industry was playing catchup and wasn't offering their music online like it is now with iTunes and Amazon and whatnot.  So are you going to spend gas money to go to the mall, deal with a bunch of asshole people, idiot retail people who don't know what you want or how to find it, and overpay for an album with probably three or four good songs, or are you gonna spend a few seconds/minutes to download the whole album and be listening to it soon after that?

Also you had the issue, particularly in hip hop, where the artists were portraying themselves as ballin' outta control, so it was kind of hard to look at those dudes and think "well, me downloading this album instead of paying it is REALLY going to put a cramp in their living arrangement.

It also has to do with greed and this idea of wanting everything now now now.

At this point I buy music from Amazon all the time, because it's DRM Free, and often much much cheaper than on iTunes (seriously folks, why do you still buy from iTunes when it's so much cheaper a lot of times on Amazon for the same damn thing?).  I also support indie artist and always buy their stuff.  Not gonna say I don't still download anything for free (especially if it's out of print and impossible to find), but that ratio has dropped from 100% to probably 10% at the very most, and probably closer to 5% if I was actually going to go through the trouble of figuring that out. 

Now as it relates to comic books, I think that people's opinions on it vary, much like with music.  I'm sure many of the same arguments for music piracy or movie piracy will also be made for comics (for and against).  I'll admit that I've downloaded many a comic book over the years, and I think that one of the reasons is that it's just such a pain in the ass to get digital comics from the official sources.  I mean, they're available but you're paying full price (same as physical in the majority of cases) for a digital file that in some cases isn't even yours, it's in the cloud.

Although then there are guys like THIS which...seriously.... I have to admit this is the most ballsy damn thing I've seen since someone uploaded the full film of Django Unchained on Youtube with the title "Legal DVD Screening Copy"

Now THAT guy?  That guys's a dick and should probably be visited by some walkers in the middle of the night.

But also you have the sticky situation as it pertains to DRM.  I contacted all the major comic book providers, and a few indies, and all of them have responded that any comic book you buy from them is locked into THEIR app.  So if you buy a Marvel comic, you cannot read it in the DC comic app.  You can't read it in a third party app that you bought, such as Comic Glass which I use.

I paid $3 for Comic Glass which allows for all variety of files to be read, including .CBR, .CBZ and .PDF among others.  It's a fantastic app and one I couldn't imagine switching out for another.   However, due to the industry's paranoia over piracy (something that they have ZERO control over, as every single comic book out there gets put online, with very very few exceptions, within a day or so of it's release, often the very same morning) they lock their overpriced digital comics to their app and they are unable to be read anywhere else.

So with no printing costs, no costs to pay stores to sell your books, no shipping costs, no gas costs to get your books to the stores, etc, etc, etc, you're charging the exact same in many cases for a small digital file when your only real costs are server and bandwidth.  EDIT: Thanks to the great Brandon Perlow, who puts out the very good indie Watson + Holmes comic, comic publishers have to pay Comixology + Apple, who each take a piece of the pie, to sell their comics, so that contributes to the cost of digital.  My apologies for not realizing that before.

It's like how Sony Playstation sells their digital games for $59.99 even months after the release when in the store the games are down to $29.99 or less.  Last night I noticed NCAA 2013 is still priced at $59.99 when the 2014 version is about to be released in another few months.  What sense does that make, especially when digital copies aren't technically OURS to own, it's only ours to lease and borrow.

Now there are exceptions, as many comics are discounted to lower rates, and there are some such as indie series "Watson + Holmes" that have their series priced at 99 cents an issue.  That's cool to see, and I wanted to point out that they have a Kickstarter going to be able to print up physical copies of their book, and are offering all sorts of neat perks including a Trade Paperback of the first four issues combined.  Seriously, go check those fellas out and give them your support!  Indies rock! 

If the servers of Marvel or DC went down, our entire digital collection may be gone.    If Marvel or DC or one of these other companies went out of business (not likely at this point, but in the future who knows?) then all our purchases would be gone.  Which makes getting an ACTUAL digital copy that we can put on our external hard drives, transfer to whatever device we want, use whatever app we want, is an important step to combat piracy.

Nothing combats piracy like convenience, good pricing and a reasonable knowledge of what your consumer base wants.

There's also a great point that I saw in a piece about how piracy is NOT ruining the comic industry.  They wrote the following, which I think sums it up nicely.

The vagaries of real life also make accurately gauging the effect of piracy difficult. How many people do you know that keep buying crappy comics because they want a complete collection? We all know a few of them, right? Now imagine that completionism writ large. You can have almost every issue of Amazing Spider-Man ever printed in under two hours -- even if you never intended to read them all -- all it would really take is five minutes on Google. Expand that impulse to movies, music, and other media, and you begin to have a clearer picture of what some pirates are into. Some people just like having things. They aren't going to read or watch anything they download. They just like knowing that they have it, if at some point they need it in the future. Other people just like having a high ratio on a torrent site, as if it were a high score.

Are these people lost sales? I don't think so. In a just world, would they be sales? Sure, of course. But I think the real lost sales aren't the pirates, but people who are used to getting things for free because the internet makes getting lots of things for free very, very easy, both illegally and legally. Part of the problem of treating piracy as the number one problem is that piracy then becomes something to stop in and of itself. You can't cure piracy any more than you can cure shoplifting or murder. You can make it unpleasant for people who get caught, sure, but what about the ones who don't get caught? Like every other war on a vague, ephemeral idea, like Drugs and Terror, this is a war you can't win.

And that's a brilliant point.  Not everyone downloading stuff is doing it because they otherwise, they'd have to pay, some people just like to collect shit, and they wouldn't buy it if they couldn't get it for free.  I'm guilty of that in the past where I'd amass a ton of DVDS that I would never watch.  Right now I collect Digital copies that come in DVDS and Blurays.  Ultraviolet codes that can be redeemed in VUDU.

At this point I have roughly 250 movies and about 10 TV series, the majority of which I have never watched.  Why?  Because I like having them, and I like to know that in the future if I WANT to watch them, well, there they are.   It's that old adage of "I'd rather have it and not need it then need it and not have it." at work.

Also there are plenty of other reasons for why the comic industry may be in decline, as many have suggested that it is, and that is the same reasons that the football teams in California seem to have a difficult time attracting sell out crowds:

There are simply more things to entertain us than it was when we were younger.  We have more things to do, we have more things to spend our money and our time on.  Back as a kid I didn't have that many options of things to buy.  There was a 7/11 a mile or two away and so I would ride my bike down there and pick up some Marvel comic books, and read them.  Other than comics or the occasional music release, there wasn't really anything that I could spend my money on (besides the obvious candy and sodas).

Now I can spend my money on anything I can imagine, both moral and immoral.  I think that for many people that are facing that same situation, they have more things to spend money on than comic books.  They have bills, they have kids to feed, they have mogages to pay, some of which may be underwater.  Not saying that gives someone license to steal, simply saying that there are mitigating circumstances beyond simply "Those thievin' bastids" that could account for why the comic industry may or may not be doing as well as it once was.  More options.

Not everyone is going to spend that money on those comics.  However, contrary to the idea that illegal downloading hurts the economy, there's some merit, I believe, to the notion that it doesn't hurt the economy, because that money they theoretically would have spent on the comics, ended up being spent on something else.   So since they theoretically wouldn't have actually bought the comics, or gotten them if they weren't free, the comic book industry lost nothing, the filthy filthy pirates gained some entertainment for a few minutes, and the economy of whatever country they are in still saw that money come in, just in a different industry.

Several years back Torrent Freak posted an article about how piracy actually HELPED the comic book industry, when in the aftermath of the release of Apple's iPad, there were doom and gloomers predicting the downfall of the comic book industry.

There was an indie artist who found out that his book had been posted on 4Chan, and that instead of it hurting him, it actually helped him immensely as sales skyrocketed from people who were first introduced to his work.  This actually helped him more than a positive review in Boing Boing.

Clearly that isn't something that would apply to everyone, and I'm sure there are those who have been pirated and have not seen an uptick in sales or traffic, however what this points out is the fallacy of the argument that there is no benefit to piracy, or that piracy only harms the industry that the downloader professes to care about.

I think it's all about perspective and how you go about marketing your work.  If you infect your work with DRM and lock it down so tight that you can't have it on any other application, then that's not going to be a business savvy thing for you to do.  Yet that is what Comixology and the other comic book companies have been doing.  Look at iTunes and Amazon.  You buy something from them in a digital format, you get that copy to download to your computer, and you can load it up on your PS3, your Xbox, your ipad, ipod, Kindle, whatever.  You can listen to them in Windows Media Player, iTunes, winamp or whatever media player you have.  NOTE: Some files may need to be converted to another format, but you are able to do that, because the files are not locked into whatever proprietary entity that the companies have deemed to be the one true player.

Remember the outcry over DRM when it came to music in the last decade or so?  Remember how hard people pushed back against the items that they paid for being locked into a specific player or device?   What makes these Comic book publishers think that their work is any more important than those works?  I don't mean that as an insult, I'm simply asking why after all that fuss over DRM, would you lock your shit down to where it can't be viewed in another application?

Is it because you want to make sure it's not pirated?  I hate to be the one to break this to you, but that is not something that you can stop.  You can take steps to try to mitigate it, you can send some cease and desist letters, file lawsuits, etc, etc, but if you think that by locking in the legitimate purchases made by your customers, that those books won't be put online for file sharing, you haven't been paying attention.

Those books are ALREADY on the file sharing sites for those who are interested in downloading them.  All you are doing is pissing off those who are trying to support you and your industry.  Here you have a whole lot of people saying "Shut up and take my money!" and you're taking the money, but you're limiting what someone can do with that purchase.   That is not smart business model.

And has it has been shown, when there are viable alternatives to piracy presented for the consumer, there IS a noticeable effect.

 According to NPD’s “Annual Music Study 2012,” 40 percent of consumers who had illegally downloaded music via P2P services in 2011 reported that they had stopped or downloaded less music from P2P networks. The primary reason for this reduced sharing activity was an increased use of free, legal music streaming services. In fact nearly half of those who stopped or curtailed file sharing cited the use of streaming services as their primary reason for stopping or reducing their file-sharing activity.

 I think the comic book industry should smarten up when it comes to some of these things.

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