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October 19, 2009

Roundtable: Digital Piracy

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We hear about it all the time: digital piracy. The scourge of the entertainment industry, digital piracy has been taken on by music companies, movie studios, and major publishers. But what of comic piracy? Does it affect the industry as a whole? We talked to three people in graphic publishing to see what the state of matters is and how they are combating illegal downloading.

Our participants:
Aaron Colter, Marketing Coordinator, Dark Horse Books
Eric Reynolds, Marketing Director, Fantagraphics Books
Brett Warnock, Publisher, Top Shelf
 
 
How do you protect yourself from digital piracy?
Brett Warnock: Well, we don’t do so offensively, as far as I know. If we hear about one of our books that’s been pirated and up online, we write to the party who did it and ask to take it down.

Eric Reynolds: However we can. It’s gotten increasingly difficult to keep tabs on piracy, for sure. But we monitor the popular bittorrent sites and stop what we can.
Aaron Colter: We keep a pretty close eye through a variety of online tracking measures to find those sites that host illegal material. When found, we submit a request to our legal department, who decides the best course of action.
 
 
What’s the line between fair use and copyright infringement in the digital age?
Aaron: That’s something that I think the courts are event still trying to decide! For Dark Horse, we usually post three pages of any given book on our site for fans to check out. And we realize that once the material is up there, fans or news sites, whoever, have the ability to get the images. While we ask that anyone reposting material get the approval from us, I think it’s fair to assume that not everyone does.

Eric: I think the spirit of the law is pretty clear. It can be interpreted fairly liberally, but the law is relatively clear: If the material in question is being used as content and not in a journalistic or contextual sense, it’s probably not fair use.

Brett: From where I stand, it depends on how complete the sample is. Clearly, if it’s merely a few panels, meant to be merely part of a lager tapestry, then I think that should be okay.

If someone is making money, however, on a part or the whole of a project that stands alone (i.e., is NOT part of a larger work), then clearly the original author is getting burned, and it directly affects their livelihood.
 
 
How do you encourage excerpting and sampling that promotes sales while discouraging infringement that hurts it?
Aaron: We’ve done quite a bit to get free material to the public. For example, MySpace Dark Horse Presents is chock-full of free content on a monthly basis (just go to myspace.com/darkhorsepresents). But we also have an E-Comics section on our site where we’ve posted entire first issues from Beasts of Burden, Werewolves on the Moon: Versus Vampires, Shaman Warrior, Banya, Rapture, etc. And we even gave away the first Terminator comic on iTunes.

So, as a company that’s always trying to stay on the cutting edge of technology and our readers’ desires, we really understand that sometimes giving everyone the chance to see how great our properties are can be a good thing for sales in the direct market. Of course, we’re always mindful of comic shops and other retailers, because really, whatever free content we release, we release in order to promote sales and drive people into comic shops, where they get a whole new level of community and customer service.

Brett: You know, I don’t think we do give official permission to even sample stuff. If it was used in the proper context as listed above, and we stumble upon it after the fact, we’d probably let it slide.

That said, “encouraging” someone to sample from a work? I’m not sure how to answer that. We’re talking almost about an entirely different medium, if I understand this all correctly.

Eric: I’m fairly accommodating when it comes to sampling and excerpting. It’s a question of how much is too much, and it varies from book to book, but excerpting within reason is absolutely a useful promotional tool. Pirating an entire book isn’t, obviously.
 
 
How big is the online market for illegally sharing and downloading comic work?
Brett: I have no clue. When you say market, does that include freely available pirated work? I’m sure there must be thousands of readers of pirated comics. Certainly more than buy them! (I know many guys who illegally download movies from the internet.)

Eric: It depends on the book, but it’s almost certainly larger than the market for the actual print object, for better or worse.

Aaron: From what I’ve seen—huge. Too big. In many ways, it’s as damaging to us as illegal sharing has been to the music industry. Now, there’s the argument that “Oh, money from CD sales doesn’t go to the artist” or “Music companies are already rich” or “Well, I buy tickets to shows, so I deserve to steal music,” and pretty much all of those arguments can be shot down.
First, as a company that has several creator-owned books, believe me, when you buy a copy of Usagi Yojimbo or Hellboy, Stan Sakai and Mike Mignola see that revenue.

Second, Dark Horse is an independent company operating out of Milwaukie, Oregon. Sure, we’re the largest independent comic publisher, but every dollar counts. From the person in accounting to the editor, the warehouse crew, to someone in marketing and publicity like myself, we all have a stake in keeping this company profitable so that we can all go home with a decent paycheck to pay rent, send our kids to school, and put food in our mouths.

Third, there are music artists like Girl Talk who give away their music and ask for support through shows, and that’s totally fine. In a similar manner, Dark Horse is one of the biggest and best publishers of webcomics. So a webcomic like Achewood is free to the public, but artist Chris Onstad asks that people purchase his books or merchandise. And the books are very nice, hardcover editions with tons of extra features not seen on the site. As long as the artist is the one making the decision to give away their work, then it’s okay. But as a fan, it’s not your call because you didn’t create it.
 
 
Do you have people or a team working on this issue? If so, how many people?
Brett: Oh, god no. Our entire company is four people.

Eric: We have two to three people in the office who monitor these things in addition to other responsibilities and do as much as we can.

Aaron: We have a robust online marketing, web-development, and IT staff. So, while there’s no specific person set to seek out illegal downloads, we all keep an eye out for it and route those sites hosting illegal files to our legal department.
 
 
Do you have any examples of how digital piracy has directly affected the sales or success of a comic?
Eric: I really don’t.

Brett: No anecdotal evidence to date.

Aaron: I’d go back to webcomics as an example. From Applegeeks to Penny Arcade, most of that material is available at anytime for free, with the blessing from the creators. Without the internet establishing the fan base, it’s difficult to say if some webcomics would have passed approval for publication. Most likely many would as they’re great comics in their own right. But being able to go to a publisher and say, “Look, so many thousand people come to my site each month” is a real plus because we know there are people out there who, in theory, would want to purchase the material. And, once that material is collected, those sites have a direct line to their fans for promotion.
 
 
Do some types of books tend to get pirated more than others?
Eric: Our Eros line is by far what gets pirated the most.

Aaron: Sure. You’re always going to see titles like Hellboy and Umbrella Academy being pirated over a brand-new series because more people know the name and want the material.

Brett: I would imagine the more popular ones, but again, we don’t follow this a whole lot. Keep in mind, we’re a relatively tiny company.
 
 
How do you combat this?
Aaron: Ever vigilant.

Eric: Letters from lawyers.
 
 
Do you think fans have the sense that it’s wrong to infringe copyright online?
Aaron: Some do, some don’t. As in all of life, there are the good apples and the bad. Lucky for us, comics have a tight-knit community of people that care about the work and the artists. Even our most famous creators aren’t gallivanting off on yachts to secret countries only the fabulously wealthy know about, so there isn’t that feeling that comic creators are exploiting the working class. Comics are a labor of love, made by struggling artists who do it because it’s their passion.

I can’t even count the number of writers and artists who have full- or part-time jobs while maintaining a production schedule. There is certainly money to be made, but for us it’s not about that. We make comics because we love them. That’s why we say, “You love comics. We love comics, too.”

Eric: I think many true fans do, especially on the Fanta side of things, where there tends to be more respect for the artist’s rights than on the Eros side. But there are of course many people who don’t have that good sense and don’t realize that they’re effectively stealing from the artist as much as the publisher.

Brett: Some do, some don’t. Personally, I think if someone burns a CD of a favorite band and gives it to a friend who then becomes a fan and supports said band, then it’s all good, so to speak. Other times, it’s plain theft.
 
 
Are things getting better or worse?
Brett: I don’t have a clue.

Eric: That’s a good question. I think better, actually, but I might be fooling myself.

Aaron: Things are always getting better, right? I think so. Technology is expanding at an exponential rate, and we’re along for the ride, hopefully to a better and brighter future. We’re constantly thinking of ways to best serve our fans and our retailers. Look at the iTunes model—why spend hours hunting for a site that might have that file, but also might carry several viruses when you can pay a small price and have it instantly? The only drawback is that people are less likely to go into a record shop these days. Having been both a record-store and comic-store manager, I think there’s something extremely valuable about going into a place where you’re surrounded by physical material and others who share your interests. I’ve picked up an album or a graphic novel based on a review I’ve read online, but the best music and comics I’ve ever had came from talking to people in person at a store.