When “Pirate” Comics Are Ethical
I’ve got a busy couple of weeks coming up for travel, a few days away and then a business trip, so I’ve been pondering the virtue of digital comics. I’ve also been inspired by this edition of the NY Times Ethicist, in which a reader asks for the columnist’s opinion on downloading a “pirate” copy of a book he has already purchased in order to avoid lugging a three-and-a-half-pound book on his trip. The answer given begins as follows:
An illegal download is — to use an ugly word — illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical. Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.
Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.
The columnist, Randy Cohen, goes on to acknowledge that those in the book business disagree strongly. But I find myself greatly sympathetic to the situation. In the case of our comics, it’s not due to weight, but to condition.
My husband, an old-school comic fan, is a fanatic for keeping the periodical comics in near-perfect shape. Me, I’m not quite so careful with them (since for me, they’re to be read and probably forgotten before the next chapter comes out). My graphic novels are sturdier and hold up better to sloppy handling. So to keep the peace, and avoid having an unhappy husband, I’m contemplating downloading versions of the comics we have already bought. That way, KC has the paper objects, and I have versions to read without worrying about what condition they’re in or if I’m stacking them too high or piling things on top of them. Plus, I can take comic books with me while traveling, something I’d otherwise never do with individual issues. (I read them too quickly to justify the space in packing them.)
Let me reiterate: we’ve paid for these issues (and these days, since we frequently buy without preordering, that’s often cover price, which seems excessive). When I brought this up on Twitter, Ed pointed out that, while he hates scans, he could see the logic, elaborating “that’s a true grey area. You could just scan in your own comics. Instead, you let ‘a friend’ do it.”
I know, this is self-indulgent of me. If I wanted to be truly legal, I’d buy two copies of each comic, perhaps, and trash one when I was done reading it away from home. (What a waste of money and paper!) Or I’d buy those few that were available for pay digitally, even though some of them, I wouldn’t be able to download and could only access them when I had internet access on the road. I know it’s legal to make backup copies of your own CDs and DVDs, but has that ever been adjudicated to extend to print works? And does it matter whether I do the scanning myself or use someone else’s? Should it?
Since I’m outing myself as sometimes looking at pirate comic sites, I’m also going to note that it’s a bad sign if a particular comic isn’t available on the net within a week. That means no one cares about the book. The big, popular franchises are the first to hit, with other books trickling out. Sometimes copying isn’t the threat; obscurity is.