Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Comic Con Recap 2: Digital Piracy

The second panel on I went to at Comic Con was a surprisingly fascinating discussion on digital piracy and its impact on the industry. It was hosted by Techland and moderated by Douglas Wolk, author of the excellent book Reading Comics. The panel had David Steinberger, CEO of Comixology, Cartoonist and writter Deb Aoki, and Manga editor Jake Forbes. Erik Larsen, creator of Savage Dragon and one of the founders of Image Comics, was listed on the program but was unable to attend.  

Wolk's opening statement was telling; he remarked that he had watched the music industry alienate some of its most loyal consumers trying desperately to combat piracy with a multitude of ineffectual strategies that ultimately cost them millions and he hoped comics wouldn't follow a similar path. He then stated that currently torrents and other sites are offering digital scans of new and old comics for free, and that the process has become so developed that the sites are posting new comics on the same day they are released at comic book stores.

Steinberger discussed his goals for Comixology, which is a website/application that allows readers to download and read comics from their computer or other digital devices (I have it on my Ipad). He explained that those who are using these sites are not doing it just because the comics are free, but because they are posted in a digital format. He explained that in music industry the album hyper-inflated the cost of CD's and so people went to torrents and places like Napster to get the songs they couldn't necessarily afford. He stated the the rise of Itunes provided a legal and cheap option for consumers and consequently piracy decreased. He believes that once there are stable and legitimate platforms with a wide library of comics like Comixology, there will be a parallel decrease in the amount of people who visit these illicit sites.

The discussion then shifted to manga where the situation is slightly different then with the domestic comic market. For manga, there are literally hundreds of thousands of books in Japan that are not yet available in English. As a result, fans have been scanning and translating these titles and offering them for free on various websites all across the world. The panel acknowledged that this was a genuine labor of love by dedicated fans, but there were problems.
Aoki, while sympathetic with the fans, identified the following areas of concern:
 1. That even though the fans weren't profiting off their efforts, there were aggregation sites that had inserted themselves as middlemen between fans and those posting the comics, and they were making money off the searches. Forbes mentioned at this point that currently the top ten hits when someone searches the word "Naruto" in google are actually pirate scans.
2. Several Manga companies and, most importantly, creators have suffered financially from digital piracy, and recorded a boost in sales when a major pirating site was taken down.

Forbes, an editor who has worked on manga, stated that he felt that it was a type of arrogance amongst the fans that they assumed that they knew better then the publishers, creators, or editors. While he makes an interesting point, I don't think that is the fan's goal, but that the situation is a byproduct of the slow process of Manga Publishers who have thousands of titles in the back catalog awaiting the slow process of licensing, translation, and distribution. The fans are merely filling the void. While I get that digital piracy is  fundamentally stealing, I don't see how arrogance enters the situation - although I freely admit that there might have been some nuance to his comment that I could have missed.

There were two key questions that dominated the panel: Who is doing this, and how do you combat it? The problem seems split down the line between Japanese comic fans and fans of American comic companies. For Manga readers, the people are fans whose desire for a product is greater then the speed in which the publishers can provide it and so they have taken matters into their own hands. While the panel didn't know how exactly to fight it - Aoki mentioned that even though specific sites have been shut down others just pop up to replace them - perhaps someone at the large Manga companies should be finding these loyal fans and hiring them to do legally what they are currently doing illegally for free. 

On the American side, the situation is different. While they weren't 100% on the subject, the overall consensus from the panel was that the people pirating and reading digital comics were not your typical comic book fans - as one person put it, "These are not Wednesday comic people." The question remaining ultimately then is how big an impact is digital piracy having on the industry in America? Wolk noted that for digital readers there is a value to be had owning a digital comic that is different from that found in collecting a paper comic and that these readers go to digital comics because they like the format. If this is true, then hopefully as digital comics become more available through legitimate platforms like Comixology and, then these readers will go there as opposed to the torrents as Steinberger contends.

This panel, particualrly the discussion on manga, was fascinating. I recently read the book Cognitive Surplus (which I will discuss in a future piece), and it seems that these fans are following the same patterns that Shirky discusses in his book: they are doing this for love, not money, they are organized, and they have their own social rules and mores. I find myself torn on this issue. I am sympathetic to the fans who are trying to access more of something they love, especially since there are often no viable alternatives - unless they learn Japanese as one of the panel recommended. I also wonder about the actual impact on the industry. When I managed a comic store I had plenty of readers who purchased the single issues of comics when they came out, but then bought the collected trade so that they could easily reread the series. I wonder if manga readers might not be the same; they read the free scans online  of unavailable but as soon as the publisher releases the actual title in English they'll buy it so that they can have an actual copy.

However, even if the actual degree is hard to establish I am against anything that actually hurts the creators or siphons away actual readers. I'm going to follow up on this topic and see if maybe I can get a few interviews with some of the panelists and others who are fluent on the subject.

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