- Posted by Johanna on November 27, 2010 at 1:14 pm
- Category: Digital and Webcomics
Accomplished comic artist Colleen Doran started this latest round of the piracy discussion with a piece at The Hill’s Congress Blog, in which she blames “online piracy” for declining comic sales figures and her not making enough money online. (There are no facts cited for this claim, just a lot of correlations, which are more or less convincing based on what you already think about the issue.) Key quotes:
Like many artists, I’ve seen my sales figures chipped away as the print market shrinks due, in no small part, to rampant online piracy.
Pirates draw traffic from my site, and cost me millions of hits annually, which cuts my advertising revenue.
I am a middle class artist and farmer for whom a few thousand dollars a year in lost income means I can’t afford health insurance.
Creators and publishers can’t compete with free, and the frightening reality is that even free isn’t good enough. Pirates aggregate content in ways creators and legit publishers can’t.
I have some questions about her assertions — like that last statement. Apple showed that a “legit” outlet could aggregate music online, make money, and compete with free. It’s not that there “can’t” be a really good online comic site; it’s that what we do have provides too many hoops to jump through (proprietary format, no way to aggregate comics from different services, region locks, and prices that are too high) that many customers aren’t interested in. Someone might visit an alternate site, for example, because they’ll be traveling and want comics downloaded to their computer, not those you have to read a page at a time when you’re online.
To solve this problem, Colleen supports a bill to stop advertising on “pirate sites” and increased “respect for the people who create content.” (Let me remind my readers that the biggest “pirate site” of all, in terms of providing links to content online, is the Google search engine. Do you support shutting that down because it’s an accurate index of what people do online? Check out this article on how book piracy is about to explode.) I support the idea of building respect, but I think it has to start with the content producers. If I download a TV show, in most cases, I can’t tell you who wrote it or produced it. (There are exceptions, those creators who’ve made themselves into brands, like Chuck Lorre or Aaron Sorkin. Often, these occurs in spite of the people funding the entertainment, as can be seen when one of Lorre’s title cards is censored.) I have no idea who wrote most major movies. If you want me to respect creators, maybe you should pay media writers more and make their contributions better known and more visible? Legally, though, the creator is Paramount or ABC-TV, and why should I “respect” a faceless company?
In the case of comics, most comics that are widely pirated are corporate books made on an assembly line. If a publisher wants me to respect those creators, how about they start first? Don’t put dictates on what they make, like forced crossovers or pulling off a creator whose work I enjoy to put on a “bigger name” who’ll leave in another six months.
The superhero comics, which make up most of what’s available online as copyright violations, are sold based on brands (X-Men, Batman, Green Lantern) or universe continuity (Brightest Day, Curse of the Mutants). Those brands, in many cases, have long been severed from their original creators, and in many cases, those creators were not adequately compensated for their creations. Those brands are often interchangeable, and they’re not bought based on the creative names associated. The argument “you need to respect the creator and buy their work so they can afford health insurance” simply doesn’t apply in those cases. If I really like reading the new Batwoman because of Greg Rucka’s work, it’s going to be better for him if I buy one of his Whiteout or Queen & Country novels or comics, properties where he actually gets rewards, since he and DC had a falling out. (There’s also an argument that he didn’t create Kate Kane, since she’s really just a reinvention of someone else’s character. This is like trying to figure out Wolverine’s father.)
After all, look at it from the consumer perspective. Here’s something they’re interested in, it’s easy to get at no cost and minimal effort. Doesn’t that seem like the smart thing to do? Sure, it’s illegal, but lots of things are that people do every day. For most people, reading a comic online falls in the category of “speeding” or “shading one’s taxes” — things that everyone does anyway. Especially since most of the victims of this “crime”, and those raising the loudest fuss, are parts of huge corporations who keep raising ticket prices and cable fees and cover prices and then complaining that they’re not making as much money as they used to.
The question of whether the number of people who download comics online would actually pay for what they’re downloading is a tricky one. Not everyone who reads your work is willing to pay for it. In some cases, I believe people are simply hoarding. They’re grabbing everything they can to leave it on ever-larger hard drives. In some cases, people wouldn’t read the work if they couldn’t get it for free, since they have more time than money, so they’re not lost sales. I do agree, in the case of a single creator/personal work like Colleen’s A Distant Soil, I think the rules and behavior should be different. People who enjoy samples of that they see should buy the work, because it’s not a faceless corporation who’s being affected. Strangely, that’s exactly what Steve Lieber found out when his work appeared online. But Colleen isn’t convinced.
Online pundits enthusiastically cheer isolated incidents of sales blips after pirated works manage to move stock which, by any objective standard, would be considered low. The sales blip isn’t about piracy as awesome, it’s about a clever way to frame a modest sales figure into a media event. In other words, it’s not a sustainable business model.
Why not? In the comments to that post, she goes on to assert that people who support free online content models are actually paid shills by Google. (She later backtracked on this when told she might have been misinformed.) Then she says, “Years of piracy, and my sales were flatlining. One year of a webcomic, and up they go.” Yes, exactly. You’re building that connection with the public. You’re providing them a regular reminder of your work and free tastes to make sure they like what they read. Most importantly, you’re providing easy links to actually buy the books. That’s what Steve Lieber did right. Once his book Underground appeared online, he said “and you can buy it right here” or even just “here’s how you can pay us for the reading experience”. Make it easy for consumers who want to do the right thing.
I have limited sympathy for those who argue based on “I can’t make the same amount of money I used to make working the way I used to”, whether artist used to being hired for a certain sum or company with a business model affected by the rise of the internet. I am neither, but the same thing happened to me, as well. I can no longer count on a long-term salaried position at a company with excellent benefits. (My parents and I had a lovely conversation at the holidays about how pensions have disappeared and how that means my retirement will probably be very different from theirs.) So I changed the field I work in. I would have liked to have had a dream job, but I made a responsible choice to support my family. I developed new talents and marketable skills. I found alternate income streams. I adapted. Why shouldn’t artists and entertainment businesses?
The folks at Techdirt are a bit more angry than I am about Colleen’s post. Their response blames her:
if you, the creator of the comic, can’t differentiate yourself from filesharing sites that offer fans no connection with you, no insight into the work, no expertise in the offering, and no personal involvement with the creator, then that is YOUR problem, not the “pirates.” For God’s sake, people want your stuff! And you were smart enough to price the content the same as the unauthorized places! All you had left to do was offer them something the pirate sites couldn’t, and you’d be home free! Instead, she expected money to just show up at her doorstep.
… that last part, about there being no connection between fans and creators? That’s YOUR job, not the fans’. You have to make that connection. We’re not mindless moths, fluttering about the heat of your light, desperate to slam our bodies against the fixture. You connect with us, since you’re doing the selling, not the other way around….
I think that goes too far. There’s nothing wrong with having different expectations for different types of material. Some may call this splitting hairs, but I prefer to think of it as nuance. The idea of a “one size fits all” solution, or blanket declarations that “piracy” is always wrong don’t help — and actually make the situation worse, in making harder for involved parties to understand what motivates the others. There is no one way to buy or consume entertainment. Different customers want different things. And this, surprisingly, is something Colleen and I agree on. As she says, “we treat various copyright infringement issues differently because each situation is different.”
One last thought: People who file-share don’t hate you, artist. They aren’t even thinking about you. They’re thinking “here’s something I’d like to read/hear/view, and it’s easy, so I will.”