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Why Piracy is Not Responsible for ‘Ruining’ Comics [Op-Ed]

Comics writer Joshua Hale Fialkov (I, Vampire, Elk’s Run) wrote an anti-piracy piece the other day that talks about how it’s time for consumers to stop being selfish and start actively campaigning against piracy in support of comics creators and the industry. It’s interesting, and a pretty good example of the plight of the comics creator today. They’re beset on all sides by low sales, the difficulty of gaining traction in a conservative market, piracy, and a fistful of other dilemmas and problems. I nonetheless disagree with a lot of it:
You know how when someone you’re talking to makes a horrificly offensive racist comment and you immediately tell them to watch their mouth (or smack them or what have you…)? Well, I want you to do that about Piracy. Call them a fucking c**khead. Tell them that they’re singly responsible for ruining the comic book industry (or the film industry or whatever.) Folks, the ship is sinking and we all need to stand up and fight.

“Singly responsible.” Fialkov says that piracy is “singly responsible for ruining the comic book industry,” and that’s where I break from him. His statement echoes something I’ve seen many comics creators suggest, that piracy is the biggest problem facing comics. I disagree, and after the jump, I have three reasons why piracy isn’t the thing that’s singly, or even largely, responsible for ruining comics.
1. You Can’t Effectively Measure Or Combat Piracy.

The usual line of reasoning goes that piracy is actively taking away from sales, and that indie books that are scraping by, or worse, would thrive if the pirates would just pony up the cash like everyone else. And I think that’s true; if everyone who downloaded media opened their wallet, a whole bunch of starving artists could upgrade from ramen and thin coats to nice jackets and hamburgers. But that line of reasoning makes an assumption that’s pretty much unsupportable: that every download is a lost sale.


In my experience, that’s not true at all. A subsection of pirates are people who are willing to pay, assuming a variety of criteria are met. Oftentimes, as an executive at EMI recently said, piracy “is a service issue, not an issue of money” and is borne at least partially from a company’s failure to offer its product in a way that consumers want. That may be as simple as making it as easy as possible to pay, a model that’s worked wonders for iTunes and Amazon. Other times, yes, it is a pricing issue, which is an entirely different and very sticky problem. But sometimes, people who download things would have never paid in the first place.

That right there is the problem with judging piracy’s effect on an industry. It’s too slippery a threat to be able to nail down. Piracy definitely exists, and has a deleterious effect on the production of media in a variety of ways (devaluing media, not giving creators their just due, violating the intellectual property rights of the creator, etc.), but the effects are incredibly hard to gauge.

Kate of the Reverse Thieves
, a notable manga and anime blogger, sent me a link to an examination of a few piracy studies. The link demonstrates how the numbers the entertainment industry uses to combat piracy have been fudged, created using fuzzy or incorrect math, or outright made up. You can’t accurately judge losses when it comes to piracy, because so much of that equation depends on conjecture. The human factor is the troublesome part here. How many downloads equal a lost sale, and how many are just some pirate who likes books he or she doesn’t have to pay for?

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.

Bootlegs have always existed, whether in barbershops or art galleries. They’ve been here, and they aren’t going away. And they aren’t going away because pirates aren’t a monolithic entity. You can’t go to Piracy’s Island volcano base and blow it up. Look to your left and to your right. Odds are good that you are looking at someone who has pirated something. The only way to genuinely stop piracy is with incredibly draconian rules that would do more harm to non-pirates than pirates, and then the pirates would just find a way around the rules anyway.

Fighting piracy, as we traditionally define fighting, is something you can only do on a site-by-site basis, and at that point, you’re basically playing the world’s most depressing game of whack-a-mole. This is something corporations can afford to do, but what’s an independent comics creator to do? They don’t have the moneybags to hire lobbyists and intellectual property enforcers. How do you fight piracy in 2012? Is there any model that actually works, as opposed to temporarily stemming the tide?

2. Times Are Different Now.

Targeting piracy as the biggest problem with the comics industry channels all of the troubles into one scapegoat, and that scapegoat is an easy target. It also has a subtext I’m not entirely comfortable with, either: It pushes all of the responsibility for lost revenue and an ailing (if it is, in fact, ailing) industry onto the consumer, rather than the content provider, or some mixture of the two. “What’s wrong with this industry? You are, dear consumer. That will be $2.99 plus tax, please enjoy your read.” That’s MPAA/RIAA talk right there, and it’s completely counterproductive and ridiculous. It makes it sound like I, as a consumer, am not doing enough to support the industry.

In actuality, piracy is only one of many things that has led to the comics industry being in the fluctuating state it is in. We’re living in an all-new status quo, a world that was unrealistic in 1996, and I keep seeing people, especially comics people, continuously blaming piracy for their ills. For my money, the thing that killed comic books isn’t piracy. It’s “everything else.”

I was a kid when comics were booming and Image was the new hotness. It was the early ’90s and comics were a thing children did and parents tolerated in case they made money as collector’s items. I never had much of an allowance, but I could buy a comic for a dollar or two after doing odd jobs around town. I owned a Super Nintendo, but SNES tapes were like 70 bucks a piece, or something equally unattainable as a kid. I rented games from our local video store (either Blockbuster or Video Warehouse, though I don’t think it was called that then) for something like 2-5 bucks for 3 days.

Music was pretty expensive, too. I could pay 18 bucks at the mall for a CD, or 12 at the BX on my local Air Force base. As a result, I had to choose between the radio (free) or cassette tapes (ten bucks or less) back then. I could go to the library if I could talk someone into driving me or get permission to bike there. I could also play outside.

That was it. That’s what I had to entertain myself from whenever I became conscious of money on through probably 1999. I imagine it was a similar situation for adults with jobs, though they could undoubtedly indulge in a few more things (laserdiscs, I guess?), and in greater numbers, than I could as a child.

Nowadays, twenty years later, real life is positively overflowing with things to entertain me, whether I want them to or not. I can do more things in one day, or even between waking up and going to work, than I possibly could do in a month as a child. I don’t make a lot of money, either. I make enough to make rent and have some fun on top of that. On a particularly busy day, I can spend fifteen minutes in bed playing Bejeweled 2 on my phone like an idiot (I’m on level 49 in Endless Mode, laddies and ladies), buy an album of new music from that same phone, download a PS3 game, watch an episode of The Colbert Report while I make and eat breakfast, order a movie or ebook off Amazon.com to watch or read that night, text a friend to be sure our movie plans are still on, tweet something about rap music that will alienate 3/4 of my followers, play some vinyl while I get dressed with clothes I ordered from the internet, download and sync that album I bought to my iPod (which has over 1100 songs, which is more music than I owned from 1983 to 2004), download and read a couple comics on my iPad, and still have enough time left to send out a couple of emails.

That’s about an hour of my life right there, and it’s flooded with input. That’s not even counting checking ESPN’s website to see how well the Hawks did last night, Tumblr, or reading the news, for free, on any of the dozen news sites that I come across every day. I imagine your days are, or could be, similar.

This is what I mean when I say that everything else killed comics. We have options now, an insane number of options really, when it comes to what we choose to entertain us. You can drown in entertainment without putting forth really any effort at all. All of us get porn spam in our mailboxes, even, and porn used to be the holy grail of a young teenager’s life. The world has taken several leaps forward, putting computers in our pockets and streaming movies directly to our televisions, and comics have stayed the same. Worse: they’ve increased in price as the page counts have dropped.

There is so much to do, and when you tell me my choice is between (in this instance) a comic that costs three to four dollars to read for five to ten minutes and doing anything else, I’m going to choose anything else, nine times out of ten, with exceptions made for creators I enjoy or books that might have a good hook that I’m curious about.

Comic books aren’t competing with other comics or being damaged by piracy so much as they’re competing with video games, movies, music, and more. They aren’t competing with baseball cards or riding around on a dirt bike any more. Is the latest issue of Daredevil more entertaining than Saints Row the Third? In a way, that’s comparing apples to oranges. But to consumers, they’re both entertainment options.


3. A Change Is Gonna Come. (Hopefully.)

Scholastic has printed ten million copies of Jeff Smith’s Bone, a comic for the children who most people say do not read comics, since 2005. The anthology Flight went for eight volumes over the course of a few years, plus spinoffs. Robert Kirkman has his The Walking Dead, Felipe Smith is over in Japan making manga, and on and on. These may be outliers, but there are people out there who are making a (hopefully decent) living making comics. The industry isn’t a smoking carcass. There’s still a future for comics. The trick is figuring out what that future is.

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what the future is. I have a few ideas ($0.99 digital comics, greater emphasis on graphic novels, a smaller and higher quality product line from the Big Two), but I’m no expert. I just pay attention to how I spend money, and I find myself growing increasingly picky about which comics I buy, in part due to quality and in part due to price. 2012 is complicated, much more complicated than piracy being singly responsible for anything.

Don’t get me wrong. I like comics and love the people who make them. At this point, I’ve probably written at least a million words about them. I like supporting the people who make comics, whether with an email about how much I like their work, a Paypal donation, or just buying their books when they come out. My apartment is a mess because I like these stupid picture books so much. I don’t want to see comics go away. But something has to happen to bring comics in line with the future. Comics needs to become part of the “everything else” that’s currently killing comics if comics are going to survive. That’s my gut feeling, but I’d put cash money down on me being right.

I like this group named Pac Div a whole lot. They’re three emcees out of LA who can rap their butts off. They’ve got style and rap about subject matter that I’m into. I’m a fan, and they’ve only gotten nine bucks out of me, because I bought The Div, their debut album, from Amazon. That album came out in 2011. I’ve been listening to Pac Div since 2009, and have enjoyed three of their full-length mixtapes, all of which are completely free. I don’t really go to concerts, so the only way I could support them was by buying that record when it came out. Their mixtapes are good enough that I would’ve paid for them out of pocket, so dropping ten dollars on The Div wasn’t even a question. I gladly throw money at them because I like what they do, not to mention the fact that they’ve given me so much to enjoy over the past few years.

Their model, which is shared by a lot of rappers these days, doesn’t work for everyone, but they’re trying something that was unheard of back when the music industry was making money hand over fist. Pac Div knew that they weren’t going to come out of the gates and instantly go platinum like the crappiest of crap rappers used to in the ’90s, so they built a fanbase, toured the country (and eventually Europe, a good six months before their album dropped), and then released an album at retail. Giving stuff away is no way to make a living, but they figured out how to monetize that model, and I assume it’s worked out pretty well for them. Hopefully, anyway — I’d like to see these guys succeed. That’s why I’ve given money to them the only way I know how, and have pushed them on several of my friends.

Maybe that’ll work for comics. Maybe it won’t. There are a few webcomics creators who seem to utilize a similar model and do okay, but I’m sure there are hundreds more who don’t. I don’t know what model is the future of comics. I do believe that it isn’t going to be three and four dollar puzzle pieces, and it probably isn’t two dollar digital comics, either. Comics have a hard uphill climb, because the return on investment (to use a particularly odious, but relevant phrase) just isn’t there for the reader. Someone who might want to read a comic book has to choose between four bucks for a 20-page comic featuring Wolverine versus four bucks for a coffee with friends versus three bucks for a movie rental on Amazon versus five bucks for a 200-page volume of digital manga versus five bucks for an MP3 album (if it’s on sale, ten otherwise) versus six bucks for a pre-noon movie on a lazy Saturday versus nine bucks for a Kindle book versus .99 for Angry Birds versus free for Tiny Tower.

I paid twenty bucks for a season of Justified, the Elmore Leonard-inspired series about Timothy Olyphant as a U.S. Marshal in Harlan, Kentucky. It’s a great show, and it never fails to either stun me or leave me cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West. Each episode is forty-some minutes long, and features actors I greatly enjoy. With that twenty bucks, I could buy five comics featuring Spider-Man, my favorite super-hero. The difference in value there, assuming we aren’t talking about completely transcendent comics, is harsh.

A lot of things have hurt comics. Needlessly conservative storytelling, crap coloring, bad art, bad writing, bad comics, rising prices, the speculator boom, the speculator boom bursting, Hollywood money being exponentially better, companies going for the short gain instead of the long-term gain (I’m looking at you, Humanoids, and your reprinting of classic comics in strictly deluxe formats that are too expensive for the casual reader who needs that stuff and you, Marvel, who can’t even keep a trade of a book that’s buzzing super hard in print, and you, comic shops, for banging your war drum every time somebody does something in digital comics you don’t like), and yes, piracy, have all hurt comics.

People were losing money on comics long before piracy was something that comics companies noticed. I get that piracy makes for a nice scapegoat, but the fall of comics, if it is in fact falling rather than changing into something else, is way bigger than piracy, no matter how hard people insist that piracy is the real problem and close their ears to dissent. There’s a lot of work to be done, and being frank about the problems facing the industry is going to be crucial.

Suggested For Further Reading:
-Tom Spurgeon on the first wave of this conversation earlier this week and how we talk about piracy
-Faith Erin Hicks on the economic realities of her career as a cartoonist (please give some thought to pre-ordering her [very good] book, too)
-Heidi MacDonald has a fairly thorough round-up of several piracy-related conversations
-Joshua Hale Fialkov’s follow-up post

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