Fighting the Pirates 

Comic-book industry vs. illegal digital downloading

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If there’s one thing I don’t understand, it’s people pirating art they love. I love comic books, and I know how few comic books are sold across the country. The paid readership isn’t very high. That’s why I’m so disconcerted when I hear (anecdotally) that, sometimes, illegal downloads of comics can add up to more copies than are being sold.

I can’t think of a single compelling reason that people should download something illegally. Piracy is wrong. If you like something, particularly something in the arts, then you should support it financially to see it continue.

The blame obviously lies with those who pirate the content and those who download it. Stealing is wrong, no matter how much you might disagree with the price or method of content delivery. Theft is theft. Period.

But, I think, in some ways the blame lies equally with the publishers. Comic publishers need to understand why people are doing it and address the issues. People are pirating these comics, right or wrong, because they don’t believe they should be paying the same price as for a print copy of a comic. It’s as simple as that.

The average comic book, in print or digital, costs about $2.99 per issue. With print, you have printing costs, shipping costs, wholesale costs and everything else to contend with to turn a profit. It makes sense that they’re priced the way they are. But a digital comic? Digital comics have far less overhead.

Comic-book pirates don’t care that the same price for more cheaply distributed digital copies means more money in the pockets of their favorite creators; they want a better value for the lack of overhead, for the savings to be passed on to them. It’s no excuse to steal, but it’s their reasoning, and it should be addressed by publishers.

The music industry faced the same issue in the late 1990s. In the days of Napster and free music, did anyone ever think that the vast majority of people would find it easier and more efficient to pay for the song or album they wanted than to download it illegally? Comic publishers need to look at individual issues as though they’re tracks on an album, and full story arcs as though they’re the full album, and start looking at that pricing point.

Printed comics are never going to go away. Sure, some of the weaker comic-book stores might not survive, but as the audience is switching to digital, that’s just a fact of life.

But there’s too much of a collectors’ element to make printed comics go away. I’ve got every single issue of Batman from about issue 380 to current (which is a lot), and I’m not going to just stop buying hard copies. I love the character, and I love the feeling of having the comics too much.

So why, for example, don’t comic publishers offer a free digital download with every book purchased in a brick-and-mortar store? Again, it’s the same model the music industry uses. I can buy a CD at the store and instantly put it into my computer so I can listen to it on my iPod. That would sure as hell be an incentive for me to buy more comics from my local retailer. Are there other comics I’d like to read but can’t afford to because I’m already spending too much? Absolutely. Would I read more if I didn’t have to keep and store them anywhere but digitally, and could buy them at half the cost? Absolutely. I’d probably buy twice as many comics.

So how about it, comic publishers? Let’s see you really embrace the technology, and a pricing structure that will force the pirates to buckle down and pay the piper.

Bryan Young is editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.

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