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Comic-Con 2010: Digital Piracy Panel

With Douglas Wolk, Jake T. Forbes, David Steinberger and Deb Aoki

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David Steinberger, Deb Aoki, Jake Forbes and Douglas Wolk

David Steinberger, Deb Aoki, Jake Forbes and Douglas Wolk

© Deb Aoki

As the publishing world moves from its paper-based past to its presumably digitally-dominated future, one of the forces that has been propelling the changes you're seeing today is online piracy. Whether you call it "scanlation" or "digital comics preservation," a lot of the comics published today are available almost immediately online. However, in many cases, these stories are posted and shared without the permission of the creators or the publishers.

But things are changing. Publishers have been cracking down on sites that host unauthorized content, such as HTMLcomics.com and One Manga. Meanwhile, several legal online alternatives for the Web and the iPad have emerged, such as comiXology and Panel Fly to ShonenSunday.com and YenPlus.com.

Digital publishing and online piracy are hot topics in the comics and manga world, so four pros met to talk about it at the "Techland Presents: Comics and Digital Piracy" panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2010. The panelists were:

  • Douglas Wolk, Comics and music critic, and writer for Techland
  • Jake T. Forbes, manga editor and author of Return to Labryinth
  • David Steinberger, CEO of comiXology
  • Deb Aoki, Manga Editor for About.com
This transcript is quite long and is continued in Part Two.

IS COMICS PIRACY THE SAME AS ONLINE MUSIC PIRACY?

Douglas Wolk: My name is Douglas Wolk. I write for Techland, and I'm your moderator today. We have a number of remarkable guests, one of whom I hope will be arriving soon, but the ones we've got here are Jake Forbes, Deb Aoki and David Steinberger. Maybe you can each introduce yourselves and talk about your connection with what we're talking about here. Jake?

Jake Forbes: I started out as an editor at Tokyopop 10 years ago, back before the current piracy debates really started, back when it was like kind of an underground market, so I've been around digital manga piracy since the beginning. Currently, I am a freelance editor of manga and a writer of comics.

Deb Aoki: I'm the Manga Editor at About.com. I've been writing about manga scanlation and digital piracy a lot lately because a group of U.S. and Japanese publishers joined together to form an anti-piracy coalition. They put the top 30 scanlation websites on notice, and as a result, several sites have pulled down their unauthorized manga content.

I've been publishing articles about these scanlation sites closing down, so I've been dealing with the waves of frustration, anger and despair of fans who are so upset that these sites, including some of the larger, most popular sites, are removing their pirated manga content. The situation in the manga world has been really interesting to watch lately because of these changes.

David Steinberger: My name is David Steinberger, I am CEO of comiXology. We have created a digital comics platform on the iPhone, iPad and on the web. We power both the Marvel and DC App on the iPhone and iPad, and run our own app called Comics by comiXology.

Douglas Wolk: It's kind of unusual for these sorts of panels, but I'd like to start off with a rant, and then see how you all respond to it, because I imagine we've got some different positions on this issue.

Besides being a comics critic, I've been writing about music and the music industry for close to 20 years now. Over the last decade I've seen the music business destroy itself, and totally alienate its most enthusiastic customer base, trying to fight digital piracy. And one of the reasons I got this panel together is that I don't want to see the comics business make the same mistakes. It's starting to seem like history is repeating itself with the comics business.

Between 2006 and 2008, the Recording Industry Association of America paid upwards of $64 million toward legal fees and investigative operations dealing with digital piracy. The amount that the RIAA actually recovered with copyright infringement suits from this was about $1.4 million; which is to say, they paid 47 times what they got back. Of course, it wasn't just meant to get money back, it was meant as a deterrent. Did it work as a deterrent? As far as anyone can tell, clearly not.

At the same time, what we're seeing in comics right now is that there is a new generation of comics readers who may care about comics as physical objects or may not, but they've made it very clear that the way that they want to experience their comics is in digital form, on an open format and on the day of release. And they get it.

Every single comic that comes out in America is available within hours, digitally, not necessarily legitimately. In very, very few cases--cases for which comiXology is responsible--it is available from legitimate sources. But in any case, it's all out there and it's not hard at all to find. This generation is getting really accustomed to getting their comics on leak sites, on torrents, because that's the only way they can get it in the forms that they've demonstrated they want.

So, what do we do now? Where do we go next? What do you think?

Jake Forbes: Well, I think something that the comics industry seem to be kind of slow to realize is that it's no about longer picking and choosing individual items, or heading to bookstores and pulling a specific book off the shelf as a destination item. Readers are looking at online comics as channels of content that they consume passively - so it's more like Pandora or more like Netflix on Demand.

It's about access to these kind of channels, and the ability to for readers to satisfy their demand for volume. They're saying 'I want lots of stuff. I don't necessarily care about each individual movie/song/book, but want to be able to just browse and have background noise. It's always about having access to lots of content.

With comics, if you know that you want this particular series and you go into a digital "bookstore," like the comiXology or Panel Fly app, it's a nice alternative to brick and mortar retail, but it doesn't offer the same freedom you have with music and also with DVD's, increasingly from outlets like Netflix on Demand. People don't necessarily want to buy every piece of media they consume. There are a lot of readers who say, 'Just give it to me for free and put some ads in the background' -- that's not necessarily the answer either.

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