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Digital December: Do You Really Own Your Digital Comics?


Digital December isn’t just about interviewing publishers and creators. It’s about increasing the amount of information that we, as consumers, have access to regarding digital comics. This means both the marketing plans of the companies involved in digital books and how they are approaching that material from a non-sales point of view. One point that definitely needs further examination is the idea of ownership, and where it belongs in a digital world.Last week, we asked four companies how traditional ideas of ownership (meaning, you pay for a thing and have a discrete unit you can point to and say, “I own this”) plays a role in their digital push. Here are their answers.

Chip Mosher at Boom! Studios:

I’m pretty stoked with the eco-system that Comixology has right now. You can go to comics.comixology.com and buy a comic and read it right on their website. Then that comic, if it is a BOOM! title, will come up in the BOOM! Studios Comics App on the iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. (I know I should just say iOS devices, but that doesn’t sound as cool!) And, of course, that title will also come up on Comixology’s own Comics app also. Graphic.ly just launched their HTML5 web store, which I think has the same eco-system now… Honestly, I think casual readers don’t care about ownership etc. and the hardcore collectors are going to be buying print anyway. Would it be nice if you could transfer a file format between Comixology and iVerse and Panelfly and Graphic.ly and My Digital Comics? Sure, that would be swell. But we are just in the beginning of this market and I expect that these issues will eventually work out as time goes by.

Matt Parkinson at Dark Horse:

From an “ownership rights” POV, we’re just like Amazon, or Apple: you don’t “own” the books you buy from our digital store, you license rights to read them on supported/authorized devices. We may allow reading on arbitrary PCs, but we’re not going to support copying from device to device without going through our service, at least not any time soon.

Hank Kanalz at DC [answered via a question about convergence]:

Convergence is important to us. We want our customer to buy a book once, and be able to read it on as many devices as possible, and comiXology enables us to achieve that. We’re in direct competition with the same companies in bookstores and the direct market too. Overall, we think it’s better for the industry. Yes, if we had a closed store, we’d capture sales from the diehards who seek us out. By participating in the open market, customers are rewarded with choice. That ends up lifting sales for everyone, really.

Jeff Webber at IDW:

Technology is always going to be a moving target. We work with partners that can bring a strong level of file security. Mobile and apps have always included a better micro-payment functionality than the web. People will support a marketplace that gives them a high-quality product for a reasonable price. We want to make sure our licensors and creators are rewarded for the products they bring.

Ira Rubenstein at Marvel:

We are working hard on expanding both the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited service and the Marvel app to work across devices and platforms.

If you want to know why ownership is such an important subject when it comes to digital comics, look at the array of answers we have here. Out of the four, there is exactly one straight shooter: Dark Horse. Dark Horse’s rep explained how Dark Horse approaches ownership in plain language and provided a couple of popular examples for their model of ownership. The other answers range from misdirection to outright dodging the question.

The issue of ownership should, in a perfect world, be a yes or no question, with perhaps a couple of sentences to explain the vagaries of the answer. “Yes, you do own your books, but they are in a proprietary format we have designed,” or, “No, you do not own your books, but you are licensed to use them on five devices.” Why is ownership something that invites non-answers?

Today, a lot of digital content is licensed, rather than “sold.” This means that you have certain explicit rights when it comes to the content that you have purchased, but that the content producer has certain rights, as well. In essence, it is an agreement, rather than an exchange of goods. By paying your two bucks for a digital movie rental, you can watch it up to a set number of times over the course of a set number of days before it evaporates into the ether. On the other hand, once you pay $0.99 on iTunes, you can play your mp3s on your personal devices or burn them to CD. You can’t give or sell them to someone else, but iTunes can’t come in and take away your mp3s, either.

Pretty much every content provider has something called a Terms & Conditions or Terms of Use page, which serves as a Bill of Rights for everyone involved in a licensing transaction. You can read Hulu’s here, for example. It lays out in (more or less) plain language what can and cannot do with the videos you view on Hulu. For example, here is how you are allowed to watch content on Hulu:

The Content is available for permissible viewing on or through the following (collectively, the “Properties”):

* the Hulu.com website(the “Hulu Site”);
* Hulu’s affiliate and distributor websites;
* other websites where users or website operators are permitted to embed the Video Player; and
* Hulu authorized applications, features or devices.

A couple years ago, you could watch Hulu on your PlayStation 3. Since the PS3 was not a licensed Hulu delivery system, the hole was patched. PS3 users came up with a software modification that would allow Hulu to work again, but this violates the Terms of Use, and therefore breaks the licensing agreement. You can watch Hulu videos where and how they say you can, and anything outside of that is forbidden.

The two major players in digital comics at the moment are Graphic.ly and ComiXology. There are others, of course–WOWIO and iVerse come to mind–but these two have a market penetration and depth of content that their competitors cannot match. ComiXology’s Terms of Use is clearly meant for the website, rather than its digital comics service. Graphic.ly’s Terms of Use are slightly better, in that they actually deal with digital comics. But, and this is a major but here, it is couched in dense legalese that, while understandable, is far from ideal. Here is the section about purchasing comics on Graphic.ly:

License to Products. Subject to the terms and conditions of this Agreement (including payment of the applicable fees and the Usage Rules in Section 7.3), Graphic.ly grants you a limited, non-exclusive, and revocable license to download and display Products on each of your devices licensed by Graphic.ly under the applicable EULA solely for your personal, non-commercial use.

The key part has been bolded. A lot of this is fine. The bit about devices and non-commercial use is par for the course these days, and just means that you can’t a) sell it and b) duplicate it. But “revocable license” deserves further thought. “Revocable license” means that, even after paying, they can revoke your license to the content that you’ve paid for. This section isn’t as clear as Hulu’s and is composed of more legalese than I’m entirely comfortable with. If you want to know your rights, you have to do some mental gymnastics before getting to the point. The next paragraph goes into all the ways that you are not allowed to use to access or read your comics, which includes taking screenshots of how Graphic.ly displays comics!

Just for fun, let’s skip down a couple sections and see how Graphic.ly treats content that you have created as a user of their service:

License. By posting Content to any area of the Service available to other users (“Publicly Posted Content”), you grant to Graphic.ly an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, royalty-free and fully paid, worldwide license to reproduce, distribute, publicly display and perform, and otherwise use or exploit such Publicly Posted Content and to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such Publicly Posted Content, and to grant sublicenses of the foregoing rights. In addition, you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant the foregoing license and to post the Publicly Posted Content and that you will not post any illegal or Prohibited Content (defined below) and will not infringe, misappropriate, violate or contravene any third party rights (including, without limitation, any intellectual property rights).

Put shorter: whatever you post on Graphic.ly’s services as a consumer, they get to use whatever you say however they please, whether that means advertising or creating new works from your foundation, and they don’t have to pay you a dime (“royalty-free and fully paid”). Some of this makes a certain amount of sense. Of course they’ll want to be able to display your text on their site, and maybe even use testimonials for the service. But the difference in scope is astounding. You get to read comics when and how they say you can. If you talk about those comics on their service, they get to use your words however they please. Doesn’t that seem lopsided?

I don’t mean to portray licensing as being completely evil. There are definitely benefits to licensing for both consumers and content providers. Content providers get to control how and when their content is disseminated while at the same time minimizing piracy. Consumers can download content at their leisure, and, under certain agreements, re-download in the case of data loss or damage. What’s important is knowing the terms, and considering those terms acceptable for you, before you make any purchases. What do you get out of the deal? What do they get out of the deal? Where do your rights begin and end? Once you pay, do you get to keep what you purchased, or does the license expire at someone else’s leisure?

Education and knowledge about ownership is crucial here. For example, when Mosher says, “Honestly, I think casual readers don’t care about ownership etc. and the hardcore collectors are going to be buying print anyway,” my first thought was that casual readers don’t care about ownership because they don’t know that it’s an issue. As soon as ComiXology or Graphic.ly goes away, goes down for an extended period of time, or locks people out of books they have purchased, ownership is definitely going to be an issue. It’s better to have the conversation now and get it right, rather than suffer through growing pains that end up hurting both sides down the line.

For now, though, we don’t have true ownership. The comics we purchase exist on the cloud, they’re there when we want to read them, and that’s where it stops. In the same perfect world where ownership is answered with a plain yes or no, digital comics are owned by the people who purchase them, and they can point to a file in a universal, DRM-free format as their proof of ownership. “Of course I read digital comics,” says this theoretical consumer. “I have ‘New Avengers II #10.cbr’ right here, and ‘New Avengers II #11.cbr’ is being pushed to my device as we speak.” No one can revoke your right to read it, you don’t have to worry about the file becoming inaccessible once the company you bought it from goes out of business, and it is, for all intents and purposes, yours to do with as you will.

The future of digital comics needs to be open, if only because you can never tell exactly what’s going to happen. MP3s are platform and software independent. I can purchase an MP3 from Amazon and take it to whatever computer I like, whether it’s a Mac, Windows, Linux, a video game system, my phone, or even BeOS. If Amazon dies, my mp3s won’t be locked away from me forever. But right now, if a digital comics distributor dies, what can you do with those comics you purchased? Answer: nothing.

We spent 2010 cheerleading digital comics and encouraging its launch. Now that 2011 has crept up on us, it’s long past time to begin asking the hard questions about digital comics, and ownership should be near the top of that list. We need to know exactly what we’re purchasing and how mutually beneficial the current method of doing things is. Companies tend to operate in terms of self-protection and profit first, and those goals do not always line up to what the consumer wants. Be aware, educate yourself, and make sure that the deal works for you before forking over the cash.

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