Do or Do Not.

Pirate Comics

with 2 comments

The Los Angeles Times ran a story last week about the ever-growing spectre of comic book piracy — which was somewhat interesting timing for me, given that last week was the first time I’d ever pirated any comic books myself.

I’d read several stories over the last year or so indicating that downloading comics was pretty easy to do, but for a number of reasons (all ethical, none technological) I hadn’t tried it. But last week I decided to give it a try, as much to see what was available and how easy it was to access as anything else — if I want to work in this industry, I feel like I need to have some idea where the industry is going, and piracy (or rather, how the companies eventually plan to deal with piracy) is going to be a big part of the future of comic books. So I poked around some of the BitTorrent search sites, fired up my torrent client and started downloading.

And it was uncanny what I was able to find.

That I was able to get all issues of several recent mini-series (for instance, all six issues of X-Men: Deadly Genesis in one .torrent file) wasn’t all that unbelievable to me, though I was a bit shocked at the freshness of the series in some cases (Deadly Genesis having just wrapped). There were also complete runs of some older books on there — the complete V for Vendetta and Watchmen, for instance. More astonishing was the fact that I could have downloaded massive historical chunks of long-running series: the first 130 issues of Uncanny X-Men were available in one 5Gb torrent.

But what really shocked me (though it shouldn’t have), and what has to worry the major comic book companies the most, was the fact that the current week’s new releases were available to download by the day after they hit the stores.

Let me pause here for just a second to explain how reading pirated comic books on your computer works. The comic books themselves are scanned as high-res JPEGs and packaged and encoded in a particular format which can be read by programs designed particularly for “viewing sequential images” — nowhere do these programs indicate that they’re for reading pirated comics, though that’s clearly their purpose. (And no, I’m not going to provide a link to any of these programs or otherwise tell you where to find them.) It’s not an ideal way to read a comic, especially on my somewhat smallish monitor, but it works. It doesn’t compare to the feel of having a comic in your hands and leafing through the pages, but in terms of the reading experience, I suppose it’s better than not reading the comic at all.

In terms of the ethics of the experience, though… that’s a whole different issue.

If the articles I’ve read are to be believed (and who really knows how accurate their data is?), there’s already a substantial percentage of comic book readers who download their comics rather than buy them. And if you thought that pirating music or movies put a financial dent in the pockets of the record companies or movie studios, that’s nothing compared to the potential monetary damage pirated comics could have on the comic book publishers — and the local comic book shops.

The comics industry is obviously nowhere near as large as the movie or music industries and would less be able to withstand the loss of revenue if more and more of their customers started simply pirating books instead of rushing into their LCSs every Wednesday. Many of the LCSs which are already struggling for survival could be forced to close their doors altogether if they lose 10-15% of their sales. We think of pirating music or movies, while still filled with their own ethical dilemmas, as hurting mighty corporations, and many people have little problem with taking a couple of extra bucks out of the coffers of billion-dollar companies. Pirating comics directly affects the little guys, both the comic-shop owners and the creators who put so much effort into these books. And that I can’t condone.

However, I’m not saying I’m never going to pirate any comics again. Rather, I’m going to make the same deal with myself I made long ago when I was more frequently pirating music: I’m not going to download any comics I would willingly go to my comics shop and buy. In fact, I’ve already put this philosophy into action — I bought a couple of books on Saturday afternoon that I could have downloaded Friday night. What I’m going to use these pirated comics for is as a sampler, a method of trying comics that I wouldn’t have paid for (especially as I have very little comics-buying money right now) to find new books I am willing to buy. And when I do find books I like enough to drop money on, I’m going to buy them. I plan to use pirated comics as a way to increase my spending.

The comics publishers can either find some means of providing their product digitally in an easy-to-acquire and easy-to-use manner (preferably in such a way that it doesn’t cripple the comics retailers) or they can see more and more of their audience pirate their books and watch their profits shrink like Ant-Man [1]. The comics industry is now facing that technological crux point the record companies did a few years ago and the movie and television studios are dealing with now. And how it deals with this situation, whether or not the companies allow themselves to mutate (so to speak), will likely go a long way toward determining whether the industry lives or dies. I know which one I’d rather see.

[1] Hey, c’mon, it’s an article about comic books. I’ve got the right to be a little geeky.

Written by Allen

June 5th, 2006 at 10:33 am

2 Responses to 'Pirate Comics'

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  1. Courtney Love (God help us) had something to say about piracy (as it applies to music, but relevant here): rampant free-downloading of The Product sort of penalizes the Producers for flooding the market with crappy, substandard work for the same price as The Good Stuff (for her example, “CD’s with only 2 good songs on them”). Your reasoning behind downloading what you do is to aid you in allocating your scarce purchasing resources. It’s no different than sitting in a Barnes & Noble leafing through a Preacher or borrowing a friend’s copy of Runaways to see if you’d like to pick up some or all of what’s available for those titles. (Both those books were excellent; even if they’d been merely good, I’d have purchased EVERYTHING I could get my hands on.) The music industry beat the comics industry to a Crisis by Piracy, and the funnybook Big 2 would be wise to follow the music biz’ lead: give up, basically, and work with the leading providers of Free Comics and set up a purchase-able subscription service or something.

  2. The funnybook Big 2 would be wise to follow the music biz’ lead: give up, basically, and work with the leading providers of Free Comics and set up a purchase-able subscription service or something.

    I have thoughts on that very topic — in fact, this post was originally twice as long as it is now — but I wanted to keep that idea to myself and explore some options before I release it into the wild. :)


    5 Jun 06 at 2:55 pm

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