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How Bad of an Idea Is The Marvel Digital Comics Vault? Very.

The music industry made a lot of mistakes once the digital music revolution hit. Rather than looking at piracy and figuring out why it was so attractive (a price point of free being only part of the equation), they lashed out. Rootkits, lawsuits against grandmas and children, and absurd DRM didn’t combat pirates so much as inconvenience consumers, enrage the public, and generate a whole lot of bad press.

The comics industry is still going through its digital birthing pains, and we all hoped that the comics industry would be a bit smarter than the music industry. With the recent introduction of the Marvel Comics App Vault, however, it looks like we’ve got an entirely new set of mistakes to worry about.

A few weeks ago, subscribers to Marvel’s Digital Comics service received a marketing e-mail, which revealed a new Marvel digital comics initiative that has yet to receive so much as a single press release. The email explained that two comics, Daredevil #1 and The Invaders #1, were headed into the “Marvel Comics App Vault” today, November 29th. We emailed Marvel for further details, but a rep declined to comment. The concept is clear, however: You can purchase these comics until November 29th, at which point they will be taken off Marvel’s digital services, theoretically to be restored at a later date.

We don’t currently have any info on whether or not you can redownload the comics if you switch to a new device after they go into the vault, but it’s fair to assume that you will still be able to read the comics you’ve downloaded.

Movie vaults are a concept spearheaded by Disney with the Disney Vault. Essentially, Disney will release a movie for a limited amount of time and then take it off the market for several years, after which it will be re-released to great fanfare. Disney says they do this to keep the movies fresh for new generations of children, but there are children born every minute, so there will always be a fresh audience for Disney movies, whether or not the films are available at Best Buy or not.

No, vaults are a marketing ploy based around the concept of scarcity. If you can prove to someone that something they want is in limited supply, and that they have a limited amount of time to buy it, you can give sales a boost. People who were on the fence or putting off the purchase until a later date are suddenly forced to choose. Collectors realize that they have a chance to turn a fast buck on eBay while the movie is in the vault, so they scoop up as many as they can. And bootleggers start counting the days until the movie goes into the vault so that they can start making megabucks off counterfeit copies. It’s like the circle of life from The Lion King, only the consumer is the one at the bottom of the food chain, waiting to see who’ll screw him first.

In short, vaults are a dumb idea from the glory days of physical media. They have no place in a digital world, and if we’re being completely honest with each other here, actually run counter to everything that the advent of digital media represents.

An example: I have around 150 movies and TV series in my Netflix queue right at this moment. They’re available via streaming on a handful of devices, and I can watch them whenever I want on whatever I want without even getting up from the couch. Movies and series cycle into and out of the service as licenses expire or are renewed, but more and more companies are recognizing the value of having a smorgasbord of content available online. This development has resulted in most features being available for good.

This kind of convenience is positively absurd, and a huge part of the reason why digital media is so attractive. With enough time and a large enough queue, you can have everything. For the end user, hard drive space is cheap, and the consumption of streaming or cloud-based media is even cheaper. I have more television-based entertainment available to me than I could conceivably watch if I planted myself in front of the TV for a month straight. This is possible due to the fact that, in terms of digital media, scarcity is a drawback, not a selling point. If my Netflix queue were transferred to physical media, I would have several hundred cases cluttering up my apartment. Since it’s digital, though, I just have a small icon on my platform of choice.

Applying old ideas like vaults to the brand new world of digital media is insane, and definitely a step in the wrongest possible direction. The cost of storing digital comics negligible, and while bandwidth is certainly an issue, comics aren’t taking up space online like they do in brick and mortar retail. The only reason to create an online comics vault is to artificially increase sales, and by doing so, decrease your available selection and take a step away from the convenience that makes digital services like Netflix or iTunes work.

This is an ugly practice, and the choice of books suggests that this is a test run for Marvel. Daredevil and The Invaders are marginal titles and apparently not in high demand. They are safer selections for the first titles to be locked away in a way that Civil War or New Avengers wouldn’t be. If this does manage to boost sales, it sends a clear message to Marvel that consumers haven’t learned anything and that we’re willing to accept predatory and regressive practices in our thirst for something to read.

Right now, at this very moment, consumers have a choice to make. Digital comics are still new enough that the companies are not entirely sure of what route to take just yet. If you don’t like this trend, and don’t want to see it become a regular practice, you need to speak out and tell Marvel and any other publisher contemplating an initiative like this that it is completely unacceptable. Use your Twitter, Facebook, and leave comments. Show Marvel that the Vault is a bad idea best left behind in yesterday, rather than something we’re willing to put up with today. Show them that we aren’t suckers.

If putting digital comics in “vaults” becomes a regular practice, then legal digital comics will lose a lot of the convenience and the depth of catalog that makes them so attractive. And the minute you make something legitimate less convenient, you’re going to start driving people toward alternatives, legal or otherwise.

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