That every new Marvel and DC Comics release can be found for free on various comic book piracy websites on the same day they're released in stores has been a constant source of anger and bewilderment in the industry. The truth that actual human beings take the time to purchase and scan (whether from a print comic or ripping a digital edition from comiXology or elsewhere) every release so that it can be distributed on the Web as soon as possible is simply too weird for some people to bear, but that is exactly what happens. At least, that's exactly what happens for DC Comics releases. Marvel Comics releases -- specifically, those labeled by pirates as "digital scans" -- are procured in a far different manner: from the digital source files of Marvel itself, thanks to an exploitable security hole.Credit to cyber sleuths David Brothers and David Uzumeri -- both regular ComicsAlliance contributors -- for confirming not just the nature of the Marvel scans but also, they write at 4thletter!, the source of the leak.

Having determined the typical paramaters of scanned comics -- resolution, file size, indica, fonts and overall quality -- Brothers and Uzumeri observed that the Marvel titles labeled "digital scans" were of a markedly different fidelity than those of DC and other publishers. The Marvel scans employ a uniform standard seemingly sized and formatted specifically for reading, and the same differences eliminate screenshots of comiXology products or rips from its Web reader.

What's more, the Marvel scans are appearing on piracy sites in bulk hours before authorized same-day digital comics go on sale. Included in those pirated packages are titles that are not available via any same-day digital initiative, yet their quality remained consistent with the other digital scans. As such, these conspicuously excellent Marvel scans are not coming from comiXology or another digital partner.

Brothers and Uzumeri also eliminated preview PDFs that are made available to the press:

The PDF thing is easy to prove, due mainly to the janky fonts on the covers and in the issue. Whatever tool the scanners use to dump the jpegs doesn't actually have the fonts the comics require, so we get a next-best and unobtrusive replacement. They use InDesign to dump, is my guess, and then Photoshop to re-size. You can actually see this error at work in all of DC's preview comics, because the price and issue number are incorrect.

The smoking gun, the gentlemen write, manifests when you compare some Marvel digital scans to the printed comics. Brothers and Uzumeri cite several examples, one of which is Uncanny X-Men #7, where the printed comic has completed lettering and the digital scan is actually missing a layer of artwork, specifically the hand-drawn lettering musical notes. This material can only come from Marvel's pre-press files.

The scan is missing the musical notes, which are presumably some type of font that the scanners do not have access to, or maybe a layer that was missed out of the source of the scan.

They added:

The clean covers begin to make sense now, too. If I had to guess, I would assume that the copyright, credits, and UPC are separate layers in one file. When they export to print or digital, they can tick a box and show the UPC or copyright, depending on the requirements of the situation. Cover elements like the credits can be maneuvered around pretty easily, but the scans always have them near where they are on the printed comic.

The conclusion is inescapable:

Messed up fonts, print indicia, missing digital comics redemption codes, the fact that Avengers 22 is available as a digital scan despite not being available on ComiXology (or on Marvel's stupidly exclusive app), the standard DPI, the rigid resolution, the perfect scans... it's obvious what this is. Someone's got Marvel's print-ready files before they're finalized, and they're slapping them up online as digital scans. Clever girl.

Subsequent to Brothers and Uzumeri's original expose, the duo determined the exact nature of the leak and shared the details with Marvel representatives, who subsequently closed the hole. ComicsAlliance was unable to reach Marvel for comment before publishing this post.

For many more details on this, head over to 4thletter! and read Brothers and Uzumeri's complete report.