Why Print Is Better Than Digital

With much discussion going on about how online comics may save the industry, it’s important to remember a few disadvantages about the format.

1. You can’t resell digital copies if you need to make some cash, unlike used books, comics, or other physical media. You can’t donate them or loan them to others, either.

2. If your online content is controlled from a central account, the company might decide to remove copies without notifying you if they change their mind about permissions or availability. This happened to Amazon Kindle readers recently: the electronic edition was rescinded, the books disappeared from the ebook readers, and customer accounts were credited. The ironic part of the whole thing? The titles that were yanked were George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Shades of Big Brother!

it’s like Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night, taking some books that we’ve been reading off our nightstands, and leaving us a check on the coffee table.

(Note that after much outrage, Amazon said this was a mistake: “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.”)

3. You never really own anything in such a situation, where one company maintains control of what you can access through your account. This isn’t the first time Amazon has caused problems for Kindle readers. One customer was told he made too many returns, so Amazon cancelled his account, which meant he couldn’t buy any more books wirelessly for the Kindle, the main selling point of the device.

So, if you are going to pay money for digital content, the lesson here is “Make your own backup copies.”

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15 Responses to “Why Print Is Better Than Digital”

  1. david brothers Says:

    The issue with 1984 and all was that the company that put it up for 99c didn’t actually have the rights to the story. It was unlicensed, so I figure Amazon had no choice but to yank the books. They’ve apparently done it with unlicensed Ayn Rand books, too.

    There’s still the issue of how digital copies are treated, and it sounds like Amazon has found a solution, but it’s not quite just a publisher changing their mind.

  2. Johanna Says:

    1984 is a tricky case because Orwell’s works are out of copyright in some locations while claimed to be covered in other countries. Which adds another level of complication — sometimes national borders don’t make as much sense online.

    Amazon has since said that they wouldn’t do this in future cases, so saying Amazon “had no choice” may be overstating things. But you’re right, this case is complicated.

  3. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » July 20, 2009: Blackout! Says:

    [...] Johanna Draper Carlson discusses some of the disadvantages of digital media. [...]

  4. SKleefeld Says:

    I don’t believe those are valid arguments for print over digital. They might be valid arguments for print over a centralized digital copy purchased within a DRM system, but not for digital on the whole.

  5. Kenny Cather Says:

    While I agree in the abstract with Johanna, I think Sean has the meat of the practical problem – DRM. The rights management causes sooooooo many headaches. How do you deal with it? I dunno!

  6. Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources - Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment » Comics A.M. | The comics Internet in two minutes Says:

    [...] Publishing | Why print is better than digital. [Comics Worth Reading] [...]

  7. Johanna Says:

    Kleefeld, you’re right — but that didn’t fit in the headline. :)

  8. Thad Says:

    Another vote for “The problem isn’t that it’s digital, it’s that it’s DRM’ed.” None of the 3 problems you list exist in DRM-free files.

    Frankly the problems get much nastier in other software. I once fixed my grandmother’s computer only to find that Windows XP had locked me out because I’d removed too much hardware and it no longer recognized the computer it had been installed on — I have since switched my family over to Macs. And even that’s a mild, although damned inconvenient, example; there are stories of DRM crippling people’s CD-ROM drives and disabling other software, and the most extreme case is the Sony rootkit fiasco of ’05, where copy protection software actually introduced a huge security vulnerability to PC’s the music CD was inserted in.

    And of course it bears repeating, at every possible opportunity, that DRM doesn’t work. Not only does it cause inconvenience and even damage to legitimate purchasers, it doesn’t do a damned thing to stop pirates. Last year’s game Spore had a rather draconian set of copy protection measures, which didn’t prevent it from being leaked on the Internet before it even hit store shelves; there is speculation that it went on to become the most pirated game ever. (Which didn’t seem to hurt publisher EA’s bottom line too badly as the game was an instant bestseller.)

    I’m currently building a computer to use as a media center, and was debating whether to purchase a Blu-Ray drive. On reading up on the format, I decided not to, as it is very poorly supported — there are a few programs that will play Blu-Ray movies in Windows, but none for Linux or Mac. There ARE programs for those OS’s that will rip the movies to local files which you can then watch, but this is actually illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s anti-circumvention clause, which states that software that breaks copy protection is illegal no matter how it’s used. (It is actually illegal for me even to watch a DVD I have legally purchased under Linux, as the decoding software is a result of reverse engineering and not officially licensed by the MPAA.) There’s actually a court case going on right now between the MPAA and RealNetworks where the latter is trying to assert that ripping DVD’s you have legally purchased is fair use; hopefully the judge will agree. In the meantime, the MPAA’s asinine copy protection measures have prevented the development of Blu-Ray player software for Linux and Mac and therefore have actually discouraged me from buying a Blu-Ray drive or any Blu-Ray movies. Three guesses as to whether this has prevented the illegal distribution of Blu-Ray movies on the Internet, and the first two don’t count.

    So, bottom line is, DRM doesn’t work and, for my money, actually does more harm than good. Publishers need to figure this out, and find a more effective way to fight piracy — like providing a quality product that’s easy to acquire for a reasonable price.

  9. James Schee Says:

    Hmm because I’m bored and have been mulling this over for a few days now.

    #1. I don’t think there is much of a market for reselling these days. Even eBay doesn’t seem to be quite the monster it used to be. I take stuff to a used bookstore in the Houston area and never get more than pennies on a dollar for what I sell.

    #2 & #3 sort of fit together for me, though that case with the Kindle removing 1984 over night without telling anyone is shocking.

    I think we’re starting to move into an era (if we aren’t already there) where people won’t actually own much physically.

    We don’t own our cable/satellite feeds, we are beginning to not physically own music, even our houses be it mortgage or a city’s ability to annex your home aren’t things we physically own.

    So I can see our entertainment, be it movies and books or what have you, moving that way too.

  10. Johanna Says:

    Thad, great summary. Thanks for reminding me of some of the stupid things companies have decided to do to protect themselves instead of serving their customers. You’ve also reminded of a #4 for above:
    Many companies won’t let you view content without an internet connection, making it difficult to take your reading/listening material on vacation, for example. I’m thinking here of Marvel’s digital comics initiative.

  11. vid Says:

    Digital vs Print

    Main disadvantage of digital media is that it’s dependent on specific file format/hardware/software to view it. All of which can become obsolete. With a book there’s no fear of it suddenly becoming unreadable in the future.

    Electronic viewing/listening devices also require electricity/batteries to run. A book doesn’t unless you’re in the dark.

    Print is easier to read than anything on a digital screen.

    Digital takes up much less physical space and saves natural resources.

    Overall print is more convenient than digital but I think that we’ll end up going digital for environmental reasons.

  12. Thad Says:

    @Johanna: An excellent point as well. I’m not sure how often the Kindle needs to connect to a network; I would assume being able to take it out of wireless range is sort of the point.

    @Vid: That’s a more precise list of weaknesses inherent to digital formats rather than to DRM, but just to debate it a bit:

    “Main disadvantage of digital media is that it’s dependent on specific file format/hardware/software to view it. All of which can become obsolete.”

    I’m not sure about “specific”; standard formats like JPEG and PDF are readable by many different pieces of software on many different platforms, and are not likely to disappear any time soon. More complex software is a different story; I have games designed for Windows 98 that won’t run under XP.

    “With a book there’s no fear of it suddenly becoming unreadable in the future.”

    Of course there is. Books can be destroyed by water, children, pets, pests, and various weather conditions, in some cases more easily than electronic equipment can. And data can be backed up remotely.

    “Electronic viewing/listening devices also require electricity/batteries to run.”

    True, but for a low-power device (such as one that only displays text) that electricity can be generated trivially. The One Laptop Per Child devices can be charged with a hand crank.

    “Print is easier to read than anything on a digital screen.”

    I agree, but it’s widely believed that’s a temporary condition. I hear E Ink is plenty easy on the eyes, though I can’t vouch because I’ve never seen it myself.

    “Digital takes up much less physical space and saves natural resources.”

    Well, saves paper. Chips, batteries, plastic and metal all have a rather nasty environmental impact.

    “Overall print is more convenient than digital but I think that we’ll end up going digital for environmental reasons.”

    I’m in the process of moving and just hauled a couple of shelves’ worth of books and about 30 short boxes of comics. Convenience is a matter of perspective.

    I think we’ll see wider ebook use in the future but I don’t see it replacing print anytime soon.

    My personal barriers to adoption are threefold: readers are currently very expensive, they’re still useless for reading comics, and I’m not going to spend money on DRM’ed files. Eliminate those problems and an ebook reader starts sounding pretty attractive — but of course they’re not problems that are going to go away overnight.

  13. Digital Strips: The Webcomics Podcast : Left to our own devices: iPad coming soon? Says:

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  15. moviedemon Says:

    I collected comic books for years – from 7 years old to 18. However, I quit collecting a long time ago – about the time they stopped printing them on newsprint paper and started charging more than a dollar. When I was in middle school in the 80s, comics were about 35 cents a piece. I bought 30 issues a month and those 30 issues cost me about ten dollars total – or about 1 week of allowance.

    Today, printed comics cost 10 times that much – which means that my adolescent comic book addiction would cost me $100 a month today. How many middle school kids do you know that have $100 a month to spend on comic books?

    When comic books went from being a “kid thing” to an “adult thing,” I lost interest – that’s when comics became uncool and geeky. (By the time I was in college, most kids perceived comic book fans as creepy old guys who lived in their mother’s basement.) As always, adults ruin everything.

    But a lot of digital comics cost 99 cents – a much more reasonable adjustment for inflation from 1980s print prices. Kids practically come out of the womb with an iPod or a laptop in their hands, so digital comics seem like the right format, at the right time, and the right price to attract a whole “new” audience who probably wouldn’t be caught dead in an actual comic shop.

    So yeah, THAT’S why digital comics might actually save the industry.

    Personally, I’ve started reading them again myself – on my iPod touch. Can I collect my digital comics and resell them later? No, I suppose not. But in 40 years, I have never once bought a comic book as an investment. My reason for buying comics has always been because I like reading them and like the art – that’s it.




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