This was a big day for Image Comics. At their annual Image Expo, the publisher announced several upcoming titles from top flight creators. Mixed in with all of those announcements, however, was rather significant news about its digital content: starting today, Image Comics is now selling DRM-free digital versions of all its digital comics on its newly relaunched website, making it the first major U.S. comics publisher to make such a move.

For all the recent and rapid growth of digital comics, one of the salient aspects of purchasing online comics has also been the crux of much discussion: customer ownership. When you "purchase" most digital versions of comics, you aren't really purchasing them, but paying for the right to look at them. Some customers are fine with this setup and others find it problematic, but up until now it had been the digital sales model for every major comics publisher, whether they sell their digital comics through ComiXology or on their own site. As such, this announcement from Image represents a very significant moment in the digital comics landscape, and one that will reverberate through the entire industry.

The established, non-ownership digital model was adopted by publishers as a means to combat the rampant online piracy of comics. In an interview over at Wired, Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson expressed his position on piracy concerns, while giving insight as to why the company chose to go in this direction:

“My stance on piracy is that piracy is bad for bad entertainment. There’s a pretty strong correlation with things that suck not being greatly pirated, while things that are successful have a higher piracy rate. If you put out a good comic book, even if somebody does download it illegally, if they enjoy it then the likelihood of them purchasing the book is pretty high. Obviously we don’t want everybody giving a copy to a hundred friends, but this argument has been around since home taping was supposedly killing music back in the ’70s, and that didn’t happen. And I don’t think it’s happening now.


Your mileage on which comics suck and which don't may vary, but Stephenson's point remains clear. Even if a reader has pirated a comic, if they enjoy it by and large they'll still buy it.

For Image Comics Director of Business Development Ron Richards, the desire for fans to own their product trumped any concerns about piracy: “There’s something to be said for the ownership factor. If readers purchase a book on ComiXology, that may be their library [on the service] but from what I understand that could be revoked. And God forbid, if ComiXology goes under or their data center has an earthquake all their hard drives go away — then you’ve got nothing.”

This is a move that was obviously in the works for some time, but it wouldn't be surprising if Stephenson and Richards felt further emboldened to pursue this route after the recent issues with the digital landscape. Shortly after Marvel announced a huge digital promotion in March, demand was such that ComiXology experienced a server crash, shutting down new comics sales as well as reader access to any comics they had already purchased. The following month, ComiXology now infamously chose not to submit an issue of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga to Apple's iOS store due to sexual content, leaving Stephenson and Image to have to address the entire ordeal in the following days.

Image will still be offering its digital comics on ComiXology as well, leading one attendee at Image Expo to ask Richards directly about whether or not this means Image is now competing with ComiXology and other digital partners, to which Richards offered the following:

"Yes and no. I think the tech savvy comics fan who cares about things like DRM will come to us, and there will be a loss of sales in other marketplaces. But I think there are people who are loyal comiXology users who have built up a collection there, and they can continue to do that. We're not ceasing any agreements or partnerships with comiXology or iVerse or Apple or Amazon. All that stuff will still be there. So the Kindle Fire owner who buys stuff from Amazon can still do that. This is for the person concerned with ownership who wants to go direct to the source."


This was a decision not only driven by a desire to give readers the opportunity to own the comics they purchase digitally while reading them in the format they choose -- customers can choose between PDFs, EPUBs, CBRs or CBZ file formats -- but also as an acknowledgment of the growth of digital as part of the publisher's overall profits. Image is expecting to see a 3% increase in 2013 in the digital share of its overall sales, from 12% to 15%.



Given Stephenson's logic and, theories about piracy, many readers will now question why other publisher's don't make a similar change in their digital model, which could encourage them to eventually follow suit. Nonetheless, in an increasingly competitive industry, Image will have been first.


More From ComicsAlliance