Thoughts on Digital Piracy

Thoughts on Digital Comics and Piracy

So, recently I was contacted by Daniel Boswell, a student who’s doing a thesis on digital comics, and I figured ya’all might be interested in some of the questions and answers. These are my first thoughts – and, to be honest, I was a little surprised at exactly how I felt on some of these fronts, but… here they are… and I welcome discussion (and, even, disagreement!)
What issues arise when converting comics to be read via portable digital devices?

For almost all pre-existing comics (ie stuff that’s either been published already or designed for print) the biggest issue is dealing with the size of the screen, and the corresponding ergonomics of the device. Ie, bigger screens are better for reading, but, right now, bigger screens mean that you have to use a desktop or laptop computer – neither of which are particularly convenient for reading comics. Smaller screens have to either cut up the artwork (as iVerse, uClick and other publishers have done), present the art in some smaller windowed format (the comixology app handles that by whooshing the reader around the panels, the Comic Reader Mobi handles it by allowing you to double tap to auto-zoom in on text boxes) the Infurious Heroes comic reader deals with it by presenting the entire page in landscape mode – requiring you to swipe the screen up or down to read, and includes a double tap to zoom.

The issues are different when creating new content.

What digital publishing systems and digital rights technologies are being used to produce comics in this way? Can you also explain how the technology works, in layman’s terms?

Did the above answer that? (If you need more details I’ll happily follow up)

Coming soon is the Longbox project, headed by Rantz Hosely. Longbox promises to be an ‘itunes’ for comics. Although, I think, the issue for digital comics will remain finding the perfect device to read comics on.

You mentioned Murderdrome being banned by Apple. What kind of impediments and regulations are being imposed by its seeming monopoly of portable media (with the iPhone and touch) and what alternatives are there for artists wanting to digitally publish their work.

Well, apple are slowly opening up. When Murderdrome was ‘banned’ (and it, strictly speaking wasn’t – we were asked to resubmit and remove the offending material – a practical impossibility, sadly) there were no ratings system in place for material like comics, Apple have since altered the app store to allow ratings on all kinds of apps (including books). It’s still not a perfect system, many apps, for example, have had to accept a 17+ rating simply because the offer access to material via the internet (indirectly offering access to adult material).

Publishing your work digitally is easy, there are all sorts of ways of doing it (myebook.com, issu.com and simply setting up a blog with a comic on there). The trick is the publish your work and be paid – a much more difficult thing. Apple’s app store was (and still is) the only viable way to manage micropayments to millions of users without the artists/publishers having to deal with any of the corresponding infrastructure required to do so. So, for example, one person could create a comic, publish it on the Apple AppStore and receive micropayments world wide from a captured audience of 14million or more users for a one off cost of $99 (which is Apple’s fee for allowing you to be a ‘developer’). Those costs do not change, as apple take a 30% cut of every comic (in the form of an app) sold. Compared to traditional print, that’s almost a magical option!

What kind of response and consumer feedback is being seen in response to these digital initiatives?

So far it seems to be very positive, everyone recognises that the current method of distribution is ‘broken’.

What do you see as the relative strengths and weaknesses of print comics vs. digital comics?

Print comics can be very beautiful – and remain real objects that people are attached too – beyond their content, the shape of the book, the tactility of it and the smell of print are very attractive for a large number of people (myself included) and that’s something digital comics can never duplicate.

On the other hand…

Digital comics require less physical space (a MASSIVE reason that many people, as the grow older and have kids, find to stop reading comics)
Digital comics are often much cheaper (99cent / $2 is the common price point people are talking about as opposed to $2.99/$3.99)
Digital comics are much easier to distribute (worldwide distribution is as easy as local distribution; 2000AD for example, while very popular world wide is almost impossible to get overseas with any regularity)
Digital comics promise to increase the revenue to the comic creator (in the case of the App Store, 70% of the cost of the comic goes to the comics creators, in the case of print, you’ll be VERY lucky to see any profits at all – and, if you do reach a point where costs are covered you will only ever see around 40% of the cover price – money which will be used to pay for print on the next issue)
Digital comics never go out of print (or out of stock)
Digital comics, like comics themselves, can be created by anyone with a bit of time.

How much of a threat do you consider digital piracy to be and what affect do you think it can have on the print industry (particularly in regard to the market for American works by major publishers like Marvel and DC)?

I think going digital is inevitable, digital piracy is ALSO inevitable, but I’m not sure I’d agree it’s a threat – until Marvel / DC start selling material online in a decent format (ie CBR) digital piracy is not only NOT competing with legitimate sales it’s actually increasing the potential number of comic readers. If you could make ALL pirated content disappear tomorrow (ie unplug the internet for EVERYONE) those people would NOT wonder around looking for comic shops, they’d simply stop reading comics. They’re reading pirated comics because, for them, there are no alternative methods of getting comics (and, in the case of some comics, ie Marvelman, Zenith and others, there are no ways to get those comics at all). Marvel have a digital distribution system but it’s so poorly put together, my feeling is that the only people reading it are marvel ‘zombies’ who are, in all likelihood, already buying the comics.

As with the music industry, until a method of selling comics digitally in a cheap DRM unencumbered format is available, it’s hard to compare the distribution of free CBR/CBZ comics with the lack of ‘potential sales’. If digital piracy where really a big issue, then iTunes would be out of business. Present a central method for people to buy material they want in a fair price without DRM and piracy, while it will never go away, it will certainly never steal real customers.

“Customers think the price is really good where it is. We’re trying to compete with piracy — we’re trying to pull people away from piracy and say, ‘You can buy these songs legally for a fair price.’ But if the price goes up a lot, they’ll go back to piracy. Then, everybody loses.”
Steve Jobs.

Does it pose a risk to the development of digital comics for portable media?

No. Anything that creates more readers of comics is a good thing.

(There may be some follow up questions which I’ll also post here and I could probably do with a good copy editor, but there you have it. Thanks for Daniel for allowing me to post this up…)

Author: PJ

Belfast based Comic Artist who won’t shut up on twitter.