Monday, March 20, 2006

Just The FAQs: Downloading Comics

Let's get one thing straight right away: This is NOT a "How-To."

Q: You can download comics?

A: You can download just about anything these days, including comics. Most of them are scanned by fans and distributed through peer-to-peer networks.

Q: Isn't that illegal?

A: Yes, it is. But that doesn’t stop people from doing it. It's been going on at least since the days of Napster, and the newer technology has only made it more prevalent and popular.

Q: What kinds of comics get scanned/downloaded?

A: All kinds of comics. The most popular ones, though, are Marvel/DC superhero books (current and past) and Japanese manga.

Q: I don't understand why scanning comics is illegal.

A: In and of itself, it's not. At least, not always. If you scan a comic you've just to have an electronic copy to read on your laptop, that's okay; it falls under "fair use" provisions of US copyright law. "Fair use" also allows you to use images from the comic (although usually not the whole comic itself) for the purpose of reviewing, reporting, parody, and academic scholarship. It's when you (and I use "you" here generally, to mean anyone) distribute copies, electronic or otherwise, of the entire work to others without the permission of the copyright holder that you violate copyright.

Q: But isn't a copy downloaded via peer-to-peer technology free? If no one's making any money off of it…

A: Doesn't matter. The law is very clear on this; infringement is infringement. And it cuts both ways; someone who downloads a comic without paying for it is just as guilty as the one who uploaded it without permission.

Q: What about the manga though? US copyright law doesn't extend to Japanese work, does it?

A: It does if the work is licensed for publication in the US. Viz, Tokyopop, Dark Horse, and other companies pay hefty fees for the exclusive right to translate and publish English versions of Japanese work in the US. Unlicensed material isn't applicable under US law, but since the Internet is a global jurisdiction, such "scanlated" manga does violate Japanese law. To date, no one in Japan has attempted to press charges against a foreigner caught with illegally downloaded material, but as the RIAA showed, that can change quickly. And, just for the record, the Japanese artists whose work is stolen are against it regardless of license.

Q: Okay, the law says it's illegal. But why is it wrong?

A: This is, and I'm sorry to use this language, a very stupid question. It's wrong because it's stealing; even if it were legal, it would still be wrong. Taking things that don't belong to you (including intellectual property rights), or taking a product without paying for it, is wrong. This is elementary ethics.

Q: But is an electronic copy really a "product?" A comic is paper, ink, and staples.

A: To paraphrase Captain Jack Sparrow, that's what a comic *needs*. What a comic is, is artistic expression. The paper, ink, and staples that are the physical components of a comic book are worthless in comparison to the ideas, and the execution thereof, that create the content. If a comic is just paper, ink, and staples, then 22 stapled-together black pages are just as deserving of your $2.99 as the latest issue of Fantastic Four. But we all know they're not. In terms of art, the "product" is the content. And when you download a comic without permission, the content is exactly what you're stealing.

Q: Well, why don't they give us permission? I'd pay for e-comics if they offered them.

A: Comics companies are just taking their first steps into the world of digital content. One of the obstacles is formatting; no one's yet been able to come up with a digital format that replicates the experience of reading a comic enough to be worth the cost. Even the most popular format for illegally downloaded comics, the .cbr file, is little more than a spiffed-up .pdf. For a while, Marvel offered select issues for free on their website, but they were uncopiable, and not so much a unique publication as a Flash movie that allowed you to move back and forth through scanned pages. Crossgen Comics patented a format that was quite popular, but it's vanished into the ether with that company's implosion. Tentative steps are being taken, but, as this week's Lying in the Gutters shows, even the issue of whether or not the companies own digital reprint rights is confused.

Q: My friend says that downloading a comic you don't intend to buy doesn't really harm anyone, since nobody lost a sale. Is he right?

A: Well, there's harm, and there's harm. It is something of a slap in the face to the people who worked to produce that comic to say that you want to read their work, but not badly enough to pay them for it. And then there's the harm it does, not necessarily to any one person, but to the system as a whole. If payment for goods and services no longer enters into obtaining them, what incentive is there for creators and companies to produce? This argument runs too close to economic anarchy for my tastes.

Q: What if I do intend to buy it?

A: Then go and buy it. The story will still be there when you do. One of the more disturbing undercurrents of the downloading phenomenon is the assumption that the downloader is entitled to the product, and entitled to it immediately, just by virtue of wanting it. This is the kind of behavior that got those four kids in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory turned into grotesque sight gags. If either your economic circumstances or your decision to buy everything in trade means you can't get it right away, well, tough. No one gets everything they want; there are, you'll pardon the expression, trade-offs.

Q: You couldn't fucking resist.

A: No, I couldn't. Getting to a bottom line, society by definition has to have rules. And those rules have to be followed for everyone's good, even if they're inconvenient at times. The only other fair option is to let everyone do whatever they want with no consequences. The digital revolution will no doubt change how people look at art, in all senses of the phrase… eventually. But I doubt that art will stop being a two-way process. Both sides have to give something for it to mean anything; that's just a universal communicative constant. And in the meantime, as we suss out just how we want to go about utilizing this new technology, it behooves everyone to act in a mature, respectful manner to all the parties involved. The dialogue on downloading is just that, a dialogue, a negotiation, and all parties need to come to the table ready to make sacrifices. That's just fair ballplaying.

Q: So, where can I get free Vampirella nudes?

A: Oy. Kids today…


Mordechai Luchins said...

Actually Michael, .cbr files are dressed up RAR files. CBR readers browse those compressed files for images.

faboofour said...

Excellent FAQ. Agree 1000% with your take on the legal/ethical issue addressed. What you didn't address, though, are the gigabites of public domain golden-age and early silver-age material being passed around in the net-aether.

DC, especially, should take note of the continuing popularity of these comics.

Some of us read golden and silver age comics exclusively. Some of us would prefer to buy and read reprints on cheap pulp paper rather than those insanely priced "archive" editions (I wanna just read 'em, I don't necessarily want to keep 'em*). And the vast majority of DC's golden-age and silver-age comics have yet to be reprinted at all. If what someone wants to read has been out of print for forty or more years and only available in rare and hard-to-find back issues, what's a fanboy to do? Besides supporting the affordably-priced reprints, that is (the "Chronicles" and "Showcase" editions are a good start). Yes, downloading comics still in copyright is illegal, unethical and bad for one's karma, but what's the alternative?

Are you listening, DC?

*Yes: this is the market comics lost: we don't want to collect comics, we just want to read them! We want to buy 'em, read 'em, then throw 'em away! Where's OUR comics?!?

Michael said...

"Yes, downloading comics still in copyright is illegal, unethical and bad for one's karma, but what's the alternative?"

I believe I indicated an alternative: live with not getting what you want.

faboofour said...

"I believe I indicated an alternative: live with not getting what you want."

Understood, and to a point, I agree. But let's look at other hobbies that have addressed the same ethical questions:

If Beatles fans "lived with not getting what they want," most of the Beatles' BBC recordings would be forever lost since the BBC destroyed the recordings in the sixties; many of the recovered recordings were from transcription disks owned illegally by private collectors. The producers of the "Get Back/Let It Be" film virtually threw away the hours and hours of soundtrack tapes after the project was completed; fortunately, fans illegally took custody of them. If there wasn't a thriving black market for unreleased Beatles audio and video, the "Anthology" project wouldn't exist.

Speaking of the BBC, their "Missing, Believed Wiped" project was prompted by fans NOT "living with not getting what they want." Current Doctor Who fans are quite fortunate that earlier fans chose not to follow your rigid legal and ethical "alternative" but instead sought out and traded illegal copies of the series.

These are only two of dozens of examples of priceless artifacts being saved by fans who were better trustees of these treasures than their legal owners. And why? Because they demanded more than the legal owners chose to give them and took matters into their own hands.

The legal owners ultimately benefit. Not only do they get their product returned to them in better condition than their own slipshod management provided, but they discover that their product has a ready-made but untapped market. In the current economy, a company needs to verify demand before it'll gamble on putting a product on the market, multiple-blade razors notwithstanding. The existence of a black market for any otherwise unavailable product is a far better indicator of demand than any amount of focus-group research and a whole lot cheaper, too.

Note that I'm not talking about product readily available on the market. If you can get it legally, the ethics of getting it illegally is a no-brainer. And I'm not discussing the secondary (which I'll call the "trustee") market, where the condition of the physical product is of more value than the content (there's a difference between being listening to music and collecting vinyl or shellac). I'm talking about product: the content, not the artifact. As I said, I wanna buy it, read it, then throw it away. Telling me to buy the original and then selling it when I'm done doesn't cut it: I'd have to un-double-bag the item and cause wear and tear to it. Imagine what condition the item would be in if everyone did that!

Your solution "if you can't get it legally, too damn bad" may be legal and ethical, but if everyone followed that solution, we'd not have the Beatles performance of the Lennon/McCartney song, "I'll Be On My Way", and that, in and of itself, is too great a loss for me.