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.



26 comments

  • You know, no matter how you dress up your argument, theft is theft. You’re not “entitled” to an electronic copy of that book you bought, any more than you’re entitled to a DVD just because you shelled out cash to buy a movie ticket. You don’t get to decide how a particular product should be produced or distributed, the copyright holder does, and if they don’t want to distribute in electronic form, that’s their right. Your convenience, or your collector’s mindset, is not an issue.

    It is indeed legal to make backup copies of electronic media, a right the courts have upheld. It’s also legal to make copies of pages from a book or magazine or journal for personal use (such as research). However, it’s not legal to distribute those copies, which is where the pirate sites fall afoul of the law. By downloading content as you do, you’re supporting those sites, and are as guilty of wrongdoing as someone convicted of receiving stolen property. They may not have stolen the material, but they knew it was stolen when they took possession of it. By supporting these sites, you are doing harm, in that you are encouraging them to steal and illegally distribute more.

    We live in a world where people often confuse their desires with their rights, where “I want a thing” becomes “I’m entitled to that thing.” It’s wrong when we’re talking about physical property, and it’s wrong when we’re talking about intellectual property. We seem to think that our convenience supercedes the rights of creators, and that just isn’t so.

    Joanna, I’m sure you’re as much an advocate for creator’s rights in the comic industry as anyone. Why, then, would you intentionally slap those same creators in the face by illegally downloading their material? I’d think the comic’s community, with their emphasis on the rights of creators, would be more sensitive to this matter, and I’m depressed every time I find that’s not the case.

    Once you really start researching the area of intellectual property, you find that there aren’t as many “gray areas” as the general public seems to think. Creators have certain rights, rights that include methods of production and distribution. When you contravene those rights, you’re in the wrong. Period.

  • But isn’t downloading a pirated copy of a book that you own still supporting the pirates, who are profiting off of material that they don’t own? Yeah, it can be a pain to dig through longboxes or try to figure out where I stored a particular West Coast Avengers comic book, but it’s rare that I absolutely “need” immediate access to something that won’t wait long enough for me to move a few boxes around.

    On the portability issue, a few trade paperbacks and a couple of real books are generally more than enough to keep me occupied on a round-trip cross-country flight. I suppose it frees up some space in my backpack if I get an iPad and download 20,000 comic books for the road, but people make it sound like carrying a couple of novels and a Batman trade around with you is some sort of nigh-impossible chore.

  • John, copyright violation (if that’s what I’m describing) is not theft. That’s why we have two different terms and legal categories for them. And coming up with analogies is difficult, because while I expect to pay again for a DVD if I liked seeing the movie, I don’t expect to pay again for the right to copy that DVD to my laptop for personal viewing. (I know the law might disagree with me. That’s why we’re discussing the topic in terms of ethics, not law.) Since your argument depends on not supporting pirate sites, does your opinion change if I’m only talking about making my own personal scans of the comics I have purchased? (I brought up this topic for discussion and sharing of views, so I appreciate the contributions of you and others, and that’s why I’m asking the question.)

    By the way, it’s because I support creators rights that I understand that what’s legal may not be what’s ethical. There are too many cases of publishers treating creators shoddily for me to support what a publisher wants (buying things two or three times) just because they want it. Consider, for example, reprint collections that pay the original creators nothing.

  • Steven Grant

    Regardless of the legalities of pirating comics – and I have no interest in trying to justify the behavior – Johanna is certainly right about one thing, and I said it myself in my now-defunct column a few years back:

    In today’s climate, if your comic ISN’T being pirated, you should take it as a HUGE flashing warning sign. If we’re making the argument that piracy is bad because comics are worth something and piracy undermines that worth, not being pirated means not even the pirates think your book is worth anything.

    And the cold, cruel fact of the modern comics industry is that nobody promotes. Illegality aside, piracy is usually the most promotion most comics get. That’s a much more severe problem for creators than piracy is.

  • But who cares if people who don’t think your work is valuable enough to support financially feel that it’s worth the time to spend reading a download that you’ll never earn a penny from? Artists can’t pay rent on warm, fuzzy feelings, and the artist whose work is illegally downloaded a million times is still seeing the same profits as the artist whose work is illegally downloaded once.

  • Steven Grant

    First of all, there’s the general assumption that “piracy” means people simply taking and not supporting. Study after study has shown that’s not generally true with music, though the RIAA has done its best to ignore this – many downloaders are more likely to buy physical copies of what they like – and there’s no reason to believe the same isn’t true for comics. (I have anecdotal evidence that downloading pirating comics has turned a least a few people into BUYING fans of books they’d never have even looked at otherwise, but no idea whether the phenomenon is widespread, and doubt anyone will ever spend the money to find out.)

    But the main point is that, in this industry at this time, pirating seems to be a pretty good indicator of general response to material. I realize this isn’t germane to the legality of pirating – and the legality a side issue to Johanna’s comments anyway – but the question isn’t so much whether people have abandoned buying the hard copies because they can get the digital piracies for free, but whether they’d ever have bought them in the first place? The argument that they’re keeping artists from making a living assumes they would have, but in most cases there’s precious little evidence of that, and I continue to suspect that in many cases, certainly with less well-known titles, downloading represents not robbing the artist of a sale but an exposure that otherwise NEVER WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IN THE FIRST PLACE, because comics publishers in general have a very bad habit of not bothering to let anyone know a book is being published in the first place, not doing anything to encourage retailers to stock it and recommend it to customers, and the vast majority of comics publishing consists of what basically amounts to income-free vanity press for most artists anyway, since many publishers not only don’t bother to pay upfront but they KNOW the books will never make a penny, for reasons having nothing at all with Internet downloading.

    Making, as I said, Internet downloading the ONLY promotion most comics and most talents are even likely to get, because that’s the way the comics business works today, and that’s nothing to do with pirates or downloaders.

  • Bruce

    Andrew Farago says, “…the artist whose work is illegally downloaded a million times is still seeing the same profits as the artist whose work is illegally downloaded once.”

    That is a rather limited view, as it’s likely that some of those people who do download a scan of a comic might end up buying a physical copy, or a copy of a later issue, or the collected version of the series, or go to the movie based on those characters, etc. Speaking not from a moral or legal standpoint, but from a pure economic stance, there is no hard evidence that downloads of comics (much less music or movies or books) result in lower sales. In fact, there is some suggestion that it increases sales, and there is no way to measure how overall impact on properties that are “transmedia” and exist as toys, movies, clothing, etc.

  • That’s a great point. It’s more anecdote, but I buy what I like. (I like to own favorites for repeated viewing, reading, listening.) There have been cases where I’ve borrowed something from a friend or the library or elsewhere, only to enjoy it so much that I bought my own copy.

    The flip side of that is that, yes, if someone tries your comic for free and doesn’t like it, they’ve had it confirmed not to spend money on it.

  • Steven Grant

    Johanna, when I was a kid, that was the way comics fans got made. Your best friend, or his brother, or your brother, or sister or your uncle, or whoever, let you read his/her comics. The ones you liked you started buying (or, rather, pestered your parents to buy for you). Comics were routinely passed around, and very often numerous people would end up reading a single copy. Was everyone stealing from the publisher and the artist by not buying their own copies? No, because publishers EXPECTED the passaround and even somewhat encouraged it because they knew at least a few of the recipients would become new regular readers, and a revenue source.

  • I’ve heard every possible pro-piracy argument, but all the free advertising in the world doesn’t change the fact that publishers are having a harder time turning a profit in today’s economic climate.

    What concerns me the most about piracy is the increasing disconnect between consumers and the notion that an artist’s work and efforts are worth compensation. Top-selling creators are still doing fine, but I’ve seen outright hostility on the part of supposed fans when struggling creators politely ask them to stop distributing works without their consent (this comes up every time a manga torrent site is shut down, for example). I’ve read angry rants from pirates railing against greedy creators who aren’t content putting in every waking hour at the drawing board in order to just scrape by.

    If the pirates were just limiting themselves to single-issue samples (which most creators and publishers do themselves), it would be easier to look the other way, but when it’s all 40-something volumes of a long-running manga or 700 issues of Batman or the current issue of X-Men? It’s not like anyone really needs all of that to make an informed decision about whether or not to purchase a comic.

    The genie’s out of the bottle on this one, I guess, but “I need to be able to read every single comic book, watch every movie and listen to every album that comes out every week in order to decide if any of them are worthy of supporting financially” attitude is disturbing. I can barely keep up with the handful of new things I buy every month and re-reading things I own as it is without downloading a few dozen new things every Wednesday.

  • Steven Grant

    Oh, I’m not arguing that comics piracy isn’t misguided, but I don’t know of any pirate sites doing it for money and I’ve scanned enough of my own comics to know what a seething pain in the ass it is, so I assume that for those who do it regularly it has to be at least something of a labor of love. Presumably, as well, they at least paid for their own copies, and, really, how much difference does it make if the same comic reaches a million (or even a thousand) people one by one or all at the same time?

    I don’t have a lot of sympathy for most publishers, since most desperately operate on a business model that went all but defunct by 1996. I’m not saying that to excuse piracy, but the problems of publishers are largely of their own making, have nothing to do with piracy, and if every comics pirate vanished tomorrow those publishers still wouldn’t make any money, and they’d still be using their own incompetence as an excuse to fleece the talent producing work for them. Again, I’m not trying to justify piracy, but it’s nowhere near the worst problem facing the comics business today.

  • Bruce

    Andrew says, “…all the free advertising in the world doesn’t change the fact that publishers are having a harder time turning a profit in today’s economic climate.”

    Correlation does not imply causation. Which publishers? Marvel, DC, Oni, independents? Are they all having a hard time today turning a profit? And even if they are, there’s no actual evidence that piracy is a cause. My guess is that the vast bulk of comics piracy is of the Marvel/DC super-hero titles, yet they still sell a lot of those books and are still making *very* profitable movies and toys from them.

    What I take from your comments, however, is far more a strong dislike of what you imagine to be the attitudes of the downloaders.

    “What concerns me the most about piracy is the increasing disconnect between consumers and the notion that an artist’s work and efforts are worth compensation.”

    Fair enough, but really, the amount of work on the part of the creator has never been very germane to the perceived value of an item. I’m guessing Jonathan Franzen spends more time on his novels than Stephanie Meyer, but they still cost the same amount. People generally are willing to pay what they think something is worth, and there is a disconnect for many people today about paying for infinite goods, like the digital scan of a comic book. You can argue about the morality and legality of such a notion, but it does have an economic logic that may trump them practically.

  • Steven Grant

    “What concerns me the most about piracy is the increasing disconnect between consumers and the notion that an artist’s work and efforts are worth compensation.”

    If anyone started the notion that an artist’s work and efforts aren’t worth compensation, it’s publishers, many of which, once you get beneath the Marvel-DC strata, are essentially using artists’ labor to underwrite their own underfinanced publishing ambitions while either refusing to pay talent while trying to claim all rights to the material for themselves, or making promises of payment to talent that then aren’t kept because paying talent simply isn’t a priority for them. Why does talent go along with this? Because they want to be in print… and always somehow convince themselves that they’ll be the exception that makes sales and gets paid…

  • DanielT

    This is such a non-issue.

    You can look at this from two perspectives: “Is piracy wrong?” and “Is piracy a problem?”

    I would say, yes, in the Platonic ideal sense, piracy is wrong.

    But is it a problem for publishers and creators? Hell no.

    As Johanna has pointed out, if pirated comics disappeared completely from the Internet now and forever, the majority of pirates are not going to rush to the comics shops ensuring prosperity for the industry for decades to come; they’re just going to stop reading. And as Steven Grant has mentioned, many of the problems publishers face now are the result of their own short-sightedness; piracy would probably be about 99 on a list of the Top 100 Problems.

    While I am truly sympathetic to the rights of creators towards the distribution of their work, c’mon! The piratical digital distribution of comics is now spilled milk and is something they’re going to have to accept, whether it’s just or unjust, unless the day comes when they turn off the Internet.

    Why don’t we discuss issues that are REALLY pressing right now, like rising price points, the Big Two overcrowding the racks with ridiculous numbers of titles and how to attract more new readers?

  • William Flanagan

    “As Johanna has pointed out, if pirated comics disappeared completely from the Internet now and forever, the majority of pirates are not going to rush to the comics shops ensuring prosperity for the industry for decades to come; they’re just going to stop reading. ”

    Enough do that good publishers like Vertical have seen significant increases in sales when pirates have taken down their pirated copies (as noted in Today’s Comics Alliance interview), and there have been anecdotal evidence from comic book shops that sales of manga have increased since One Manga was taken down.

    The increase of legal anime simulcasts has made for a drop in the piracy of anime overall.

    When it isn’t available for free, there are a significant number of people who WILL buy.

  • William Flanagan

    “If anyone started the notion that an artist’s work and efforts aren’t worth compensation, it’s publishers, many of which, once you get beneath the Marvel-DC strata, are essentially using artists’ labor to underwrite their own underfinanced publishing ambitions while either refusing to pay talent while trying to claim all rights to the material for themselves, or making promises of payment to talent that then aren’t kept because paying talent simply isn’t a priority for them. Why does talent go along with this? Because they want to be in print… and always somehow convince themselves that they’ll be the exception that makes sales and gets paid…”

    Sorry for the long quote, but…

    That’s how I got into the industry. The first company I translated for a publisher whose owner had a reputation for not paying the help. I didn’t know it when I first signed on, but I was warned about it soon after. I made sure that I didn’t do more work for him until I was paid for the previous work. That insured that I wouldn’t be paid for the final installment…and in the end, I wasn’t.

    But the thing is, that was my choice. I did it, as you say, to get published. And, although I didn’t get paid for that final set of books, I did use that published work to get jobs at better companies. Other comics and manga companies that are interested in paying their talent for their work. There are plenty out there.

    But I consider the guy who ripped me off so much better than pirates since I knew what I was getting into. I went into it with eyes wide open (I could have quit after receiving my previous work’s paycheck). You can parlay work for a shady company into work elsewhere.

    You can’t parlay piracy into anything. It’s work that is stolen for the pirates’ profit in some cases and the pirates’ prestige in others — and none of that helps the talent.

    So my anger is reserved for pirates who not only break the law, but devalue the work that I and other freelancers in the industry do.

  • Steven Grant

    I’m very happy that you find something to parlay out of working for crap publishers, but ever consider what effect it has on other freelancers? The willingness of freelancers to work for, effectively, nothing, or even to subsidize publishers, has encouraged more than one publisher to drop or negate rates, to put payments on the never-never, and to what amounts to pirate talents’ work (and often then claim they control all the rights to it, even in supposed “creator-owned” deals) (more often than not, the creators learn the hard way that the contracts are worded so it’s just the name of the shop) because they have concrete evidence (far more concrete than any evidence that pirating, at least so far, costs freelancers anything) that freelancers will put up with it. I know of discussions to that effect in some pretty high offices in the business, and even if those discussions haven’t been acted on, believe me, they’re ongoing. What you see as parlaying work for a shady company into work elsewhere, I see as working to cut everyone else’s throat. I’m not accusing you of the intent, but if you think Internet piracy is a problem, you’re ignoring an even bigger one that’s likely to have a LOT worse effect for a lot more freelancers. Especially those just breaking in or recently entered, because they’re a whole lot more likelier to end up with much crappier pay for the same work no matter who they end up working for.

    I get that piracy isn’t exactly a good situation, but in terms of how freelancers are treated or compensated it’s hardly the biggest issue of our time. Except for self-publishers; there I can see it being a major problem.

  • William Flanagan

    “I’m very happy that you find something to parlay out of working for crap publishers, but ever consider what effect it has on other freelancers?”

    None. The company folded directly after publishing my final translations. There was no more chance for them to stiff other freelancers. And after that, I’ve worked for some ten-to-fifteen companies in my near-20-year tenure, and never since then have I come out unpaid.

    So exactly who are you talking about, and where is the documentation to back up your stories of industry abuse? I’ve heard of stories like that from the ’80s black & white boom, but since then, I haven’t heard much, and I certainly haven’t experienced it. If your examples are from years and years ago or are so isolated as to turn into he-said-she-said arguments, then your position is really not significant. Are your stories current? Post a few links.

    Another strange thing is I had almost the exact-same argument with someone on a different forum a few days back. She was suggesting that the Japanese companies abused their labor to such an extent that it made piracy look tame by comparison. I certainly don’t think there is any collusion between you two, but is this the “argument du jour” on forums where apologists for piracy gather these days?

    In any case, the argument doesn’t hold water. Piracy is a huge negative to the industry (actually industries) which is why they are now combatting it. And it doesn’t matter what other things may be worse, piracy is bad. The industry itself has plenty of worthy players, and the bad one get bad reputations fast. A little research and nobody has to be taken in. On the other hand, pirates have to be beaten in other ways. I hope they are soon.

    “Now if you can make a name for yourself and be a desired name, then you can name your asking price.”

    I hate to disagree with you, but on this point… The competition from free labor has forced all of the freelancer translators to drop their rates. All of my rates have fallen, some by more than half. This recession/piracy blow has been a hard one. (Note, this isn’t “abuse,” I am offered work and I have every right to refuse or do other types of translation. What translation I do, I do with full knowledge.)

  • Alexa

    Still, even if sales go up after piracy sites are taken down, how many people would have bought them if they hadn’t been able to read them in first place.

    I proudly raise my hand as a comics reader who started off reading Sandman, Alan Moore, and 3 very indie ongoings, to someone who reads (and BUYS) books from nearly every single company and is well-versed in the Marvel and DC universes simply because I discovered pirated scans and was able to splash around in the vast pool of offerings while I was still getting used to the medium and figuring out what I liked. Now I haven’t downloaded a comic in almost two years because I don’t have to. The idea of piracy-as-promotion is not a bullshit one– I wouldn’t be here without it.

  • William Flanagan

    Steven, then welcome to our side of the argument. Because I have been palpably hurt by piracy. Not theoretically. The recession caused a lot of manga fans to migrate to free pirated versions (re: declining sales for legit publishers vs. rising hit rates for pirate aggregators), and that has not only caused what was once my good-paying regular translation job to turn on a dime into a rough scramble for the few jobs left. As I said, the unfair competition has reduced my rates by more than half in many cases, and my family has eaten through a good portion of our savings to keep afloat during the hard times. I’m sure that translators with fewer connections and less of a reputation than I have were basically forced out of their jobs. Manga publishers have collapsed or been shut down by their parent companies. The fact that all this is occurring while some pirate sites were booming is no coincidence.

    You may say that may-or-may-not be cause/effect, but trends support the “piracy as a direct competition to legit publishers” as a real phenomenon. I already mentioned the rise in hits to aggregator sites concurrent with a decline of sales at the legit publishers, and now Vertical reports that sales went up directly as aggregator sites closed. Piracy is direct, unfair competition that is forcing freelancers out of work they otherwise would have enjoyed.

    Real freelancers are in real pain because of this.

    On the other hand, I’ve worked for most of the publishers who produce products in my field, and aside from that one short-lived early ’90’s exception, all have been good places to work for. I also ran the editorial department of one of the biggest publishers in my field, and we fought to keep our rates decent for freelancers. We were not plotting or even discussing non-payment as an option.

    If you are the Steven Grant of the Wikipedia article, then I assume you have been bitten by the abuses by the industry in the ’80s and perhaps early 90s. As someone who was also ripped off, I sympathize. But since the sales crash in the ’90s, most-if-not-all of the abusive companies have gone under. Aside from a one-sided contract to OEL artists by TokyoPop a few years ago (and no one complained that they were never paid), I can’t recall ever seeing any evil publisher behavior in the recent past. Please point me to examples. I would like to be educated on this if it is still occurring.

    If there are no recent examples, then let’s work on trying to educate people who are presently doing things that are destructive to the comics industry (pirating and reading pirated copies), and crusade against evil publishers when it’s actually deserved.

  • Steven Grant

    William, I was never much victimized by publisher’s practices because I always made it easier for them to treat me as promised than to have to suffer through the holy hell I’d put them through if I didn’t. But I did see an awful lot of freelancers taken advantage of and still do, by dripping golden promises and crap followthrough. (Things like “Just stick with me, kid, and when we’re the most powerful publisher in the business, you’ll be right there on top with us… but if we never get there, it’s your fault.”)

    This is going to sound very bad, but I read considerable amounts of manga (so did Johanna) and I’m not convinced scanlations are really responsible for your current straits, though I don’t doubt they’re a contributing factor. As near as I can tell, what really killed the manga market – and it wasn’t hard to see it coming – was way too many publishers pumping out way too many really crappy manga in translation and milking the audience. There were a few years there when the average manga published here was of pretty good quality, but by the time the boom fell publishers, esp. TokyoPop, had flooded so much repetitive, ugly, unimaginative, formulaic crap onto shelves that the manga audience just lost interest. People do that when they recognize their interests are being abused. It’s not unlike what happened to American comics c. ’94. As I said, I don’t doubt scanlations are involved in there somewhere, but I suspect it has more to do with fans becoming much less adventurous and trimming down to the manga they were really interested in rather than wasting their time with new product they had been trained to assume from jump (no pun intended) was substandard and not worthy of their interest. From what I understand, Naruto is still selling pretty well in translation…

  • William Flanagan

    Steven, yes it does sound very bad. And I think you are ignoring the facts stated above (about the rush to piracy and the return to legit sources when some of the piracy is taken away) to cling to your opinion.

    The fact is that very few of the titles you vaguely reference are, in fact, crappy. The worst of Japanese manga is never licensed, so Sturgeon’s law does not apply exactly here. I was instrumental in bringing some big successes to Viz and some failures. The failures weren’t because the manga was “crappy,” since every book was analyzed, read ahead of time, and gone over by numerous people both inside the company and out, to determine if it had a market. Sorry if some of them didn’t appeal to you, but maybe they weren’t supposed to. And in some cases, despite good art and storytelling, they did not connect with the readers. That happens in every entertainment venue.

    Of course, subjectively, everyone agrees there are crappy titles, but no one can seem to agree on which titles are crappy. The “crappy” in this case are always the titles that don’t appeal personally to an individual. For example, one title I translated, Mermaid Melody: Pichi Pichi Pitch, about a group of magical girls, has both been panned and praised by people whose opinion I respect. So is it crappy in an objective sense or just crappy to you?

    The cutback in manga company output wasn’t a natural development of the industry, but a result of the recession. The coincidence of events is a perfect match. Odds are that the industry wouldn’t have grown at the excessive pace shown in years like 2006 & 2007, but had the economy not tanked, it could probably have held its own.

    And as the legit industry, where you have to pay your way, sank, the illegitimate industry of piracy boomed. You can’t deny it! One Manga was ranked near 1000 of the top-visited Internets sites by Google when the publishers decided to band together to do something about it. That was basically the wakeup call. Before it closed, it peaked a couple of times in the top 100. That’s of overall Internet sites in the world. All that free, illegal manga, and you’re saying its effect can be negligible? And when there’s an uptick in legit sales when pirate sites come down, you still think the effects aren’t significant? You’re saying that piracy isn’t a factor? This is not normal logic you seem to be using.

    As many fans, if not more, are still reading manga as they did in the biggest boom years manga has had in the U.S., they’re just not paying for it anymore. And even though One Manga is down, it’s trained its readers to search for other free manga. One or two victories won’t bring back the manga market. The problem is not over.

    People have been predicting the “crash of the manga industry” many, many times before. Yes, the crash of the industry may have been foreseen, but it’s been wrongly foreseen far more often. There have been crows sitting by manga’s empty grave since manga first appeared in the U.S.

    No matter what has happened to top-of-the-heap titles like Naruto, B-list titles that may have excellent art and story can no longer compete after they’ve been discovered, scanned, and read by most of the people who would have bought them otherwise. If all you want are Shonen Jump media blitzes, them keep downplaying piracy. But if you want something that is actually appealing to you and a few thousand of your fellow readers to be legitimately brought to America and have the creator supported, then probably downplaying piracy isn’t the best decision.

    So as I freely admit, I am not an expert on the U.S. comic-company abusers, please admit you are not an expert on the manga market. Please stop downplaying something that has had a devastating effect on honest people trying to pay their rent.

  • Sorry for joining late. I’m a self-publisher and sell my comics only via digital download. I sometimes get the reverse situation, where my previous buyers have lost my comic files (hard drive crash, etc.) and ask for another download. As they paid for the rights previously, I always give it to them.

    The pirate sites do post my comics, which is a problem. I have succeeded in getting them removed, but only after jumping through their legal hoops. Yes, I suppose it’s a good thing that people ask for my comics on these places (it shows there is demand), but each illegal download is a direct loss, as I don’t sell physical copies.

    What is very rewarding is that readers will often notify me of an illegal posting – they understand that if I can’t recoup my costs I can’t continue to make new comics.

    I don’t want to be absolutest here, but I do think it’s fair to note that any support given to pirate sites – especially by well-meaning and well-regarded bloggers – can undermine the efforts of legitimate comic makers to combat piracy.

  • William F, correlation is not causation. The manga industry tanked, yes. Piracy became more widespread, maybe (or did it just become more visible?). But those two things happening at the same time doesn’t mean one is entirely responsible for the other, especially since all print industries are tanking, even those that aren’t pirated (such as newspapers). They might be related, but we don’t know that as a fact. We can also come up with other negative factors, as Steven as suggested one, or that library budgets have been drastically cut.

    Unfortunately, we don’t have many solid facts about this possible connection, because no one wants to accurately study the situation. One indicator we do have is that those who share music widely are also some of the best customers. Does the same apply to print “pirates” or does the different characteristics of the format mean something else? Does the effect of free availability on sales change depending on the age of the target audience? (That is, is Bleach being available similar to or different from reprint works of Tezuka being available?) Who knows? It would be nice to have some independent data, but it’s not going to happen, because people are comfortable relying on their assumptions and don’t want the possibility of the actual answer being different.

    Your experience at Viz is very enlightening, but when we’re talking about crappy manga, I’m not sure it’s representative, because Viz has mostly been outside that category. Other publishers, on the other hand…

    PS Yes, that is Steven Grant, writer of the Punisher in the 80s, American Flagg, Whisper, and the excellent Permanent Damage column. He knows whereof he speaks regarding the comic industry.

  • One last addition, in case someone mistakes my analysis questions for argument: William F, you are probably right. More people are likely reading for free what they might, in flusher times, have paid for. But no one’s yet demonstrated that in objective fashion, that’s what I was trying to say.

    Personally, I think there’s always some freeloading (people getting copies or otherwise taking in entertainment they don’t pay for, in a variety of fashions). It’s just when an industry is doing well, there’s plenty of profit to make up for that, so people don’t bother with it as much. When times and belts get tight, then every dollar counts, and we get attacks on the free riders as an easy target to blame. (And related cutbacks, like fewer review copies available.) That’s the same attitude that causes companies to attempt to restrict used sales of promo copies, for example. They’re all attempts to stick a finger in the dam to prevent leakage when every drop counts.

  • William Flanagan

    Johanna, if this were a court of law or a scientific review board, then you could argue that correlation is not causation. But we are people of varying degrees of experience with our respective industries discussing a point, and we needn’t hold ourselves to the same standards. Correlation is not necessarily causation, but usually, it is. And it’s safe to assume that it is except in the presence of evidence to the contrary.

    “Piracy became more widespread, maybe (or did it just become more visible?).”

    Prior to March, 2010, One Manga was not in the top 1000 Google world-wide websites. Afterwards, it was, and there is was a chart spread on Twitter today (Yesterday, your time?) that had it rising into the area of the top 100 in the weeks before its closure. This is not a rise? In the case of the Internet, more visible means a rise.

    So we have a demonstrable rise in piracy and a demonstrable fall in manga sales. Now, with One Manga closed (thus indicating an, at least temporary, fall in piracy), we have a reported immediate rise in legitimate manga sales.

    Under what logic can you assume that these are not connected? Why is assuming a connection here a reach? It seems to me that the most reasonable thing to do is assume that they are indeed connected until there is some greater evidence that they are not, and to act accordingly. In our case, that means making efforts to protect the legitimate industry with our words and support.

    To your point that other print media have been falling too, I would state that those other print media have been falling since the early 2000s. In fact, nearly all print media have seen falling sales during that period…except manga. Manga was one of the bright spots in the industry until this confluence of events happened. The drastic U-turn of manga should be evidence that it is, in some way, more effected by the downturn (in other words, had the added push of piracy) than the rest of the print industry.

    So to your point that no one’s demonstrated in an effective way to prove that piracy is a significant drag on the industry, my response is, they shouldn’t have to demonstrate it with absolute, irrefutable proof. They simply need to make convincing arguments that take into account the facts that are available and add logical assumptions to come to a reasonable conclusion. I think we’ve done that. And to tell the truth, I’m a little baffled by the resistance to it. I haven’t heard any evidence to the contrary that matches the evidence for.

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