Comic Book Piracy or How to Kill What You Love

If you happen to read comic books then it can be safely assumed that you are a fan of the medium. Be it vigilantes swinging between buildings, alien space invasions being thwarted, gritty crime drama, emotional romance; you would not be reading these tales if they did not bring you some level of enjoyment. Yet it is a number of these same supposed fans that actively hurt the very industry and creators whose work they love.

These ‘fans’ engage in the sordid practice of comic book piracy.

For the purposes of this discussion, comic book piracy is regarded as not only the act of scanning/uploading comic books but also the act of downloading and/or reading online comics through unofficial options.

This problem is not new. It has been an industry issue ever since people worked out they could scan comics and upload them to the Internet, something that’s been going on for decades now. However, a recent Twitter conversation started by Crowded creator Ted Brandt has encouraged discussion of the issue once more.

As a long-time administrator of the Comic Book Resources Forums, I have seen examples of how prevalent comic book piracy is. It usually enters the CBR Forums one of two ways: users posting images (as part of a discussion) that have a comic book piracy watermark on them or new accounts asking how to open and read .CBR files (the file extension often used by pirated comic book files). Though anecdotal, this experience does serve as an indicator of how rife comic piracy is. And also how accepting many people are of the practice.

For the sake of clarification, as a matter of policy CBR mods delete any offending images and any questions regarding comic book piracy – usually followed up by a spiel on why it is bad. Of course, the idea of a piracy website watermarking stolen imagery so others can’t use it without due credit is an incredible case of irony in itself and very indicative of a lack of fundamental ethics.

In the comic book pirate world, it is apparently fine to steal from others but not from the pirate sites themselves.

But I am not a creator. I have no financial stake in the industry. I am, when push comes to shove, just another fan of the medium. As such, it was heartening to see so many creators (and fans!) rally to Brandt’s side. A small sampling includes:

We live in a time where it is incredibly easy to share data electronically. On one hand it allows us to have a greater range of entertainment options than ever before; but on the other it allows ethically challenged folks to essentially steal what is in no way theirs. Electronic piracy really came into the public sphere with Napster, a music downloading program from 1999 or so, and it has continued in various forms ever since. It used to be that to pirate comics, someone would have to physically scan in a comic book, convert and collate images, and then upload the archive file (be it .zip, .cbr or what-have-you) to any number of websites.

Now it seems like it is easier to pirate comics than ever before; when internet services such as ComiXology promise easily accessible digital versions of books at great prices, it is simplicity itself to rip titles from it to spread around the web for free. That same internet hosts websites such as Reddit where users freely and unashamedly ask the best sources for pirated comics. Even Internet giants such as Google do little to combat comic book piracy, with search results not only bringing up a number of such sites but providing suggested search terms that would guide even the most clueless of people to them.

And, as the above creator testimonials demonstrate, comic book piracy directly hurts creators. It does not directly hurt the big corporations (they have enough IP based assets and other revenue streams to ride it out), it hurts the writers. The inkers. The colourists. The letterers. The editors. It hurts everyone down the chain, even to the people who work in brick-and-mortar comic book stores. People need shelter, they need to feed themselves, they simply need to earn a decent living – and their need for such necessities greatly outweighs any wish one might have to read funny books for free.

More words from creators…

Small press creator Joe Glass, most famous for The Pride published through ComiXology, was kind enough to talk to me with no notice regarding piracy. He did not know it but he delivered what I was looking for – the perspective of the smaller title creator, those most vulnerable to piracy.

“Initially, it was oddly comforting to see so many people had checked it out. But then I ran the numbers and worked out how much that would be (unlike most publishers, we would be paid based on the sales too) and it really hit hard. To be clear, I realised that if every person pirating, or stealing, the book bought just one issue through ComiXology, the amount of money spent making the series would be paid back and then some and would essentially pay for another series. It’s probably pretty soul crushing for any creator, even those on a Big Two book though.

Take Champions at Marvel. Looking at the figures on just one pirating site, if those people had bought the series instead, it probably wouldn’t have been cancelled. In my case, it’s a small independent book. Sales directly lead to pay. Pirating the book is essentially the same as walking up to my table at a comic con and just taking a copy and walking away, without paying me for it. Just because the book is sold on a platform owned by a corporation, doesn’t mean you’re stealing from some faceless megabucks corporation. You are stealing directly from the creative team of the work you have stolen.

Given the volume of people pirating, I imagine there’s endless reasons. These self-justifications don’t change the fact they are doing something that is morally wrong and affecting the living of other people. Because that’s what us creators are: people. We’re not machines churning out content for everyone else to consume, we’re people with lives and bills to pay and families to feed, and stealing our books directly affects our livelihoods and stability of our income.

Watching Donny Cates’ feed and the kind of responses he was getting meant that we were seeing that [it’s just corporations] as an excuse a lot. Even books bought through Marvel or DC are made by people. If everyone steals them instead of buying them, those comics will stop getting made. Potentially those creators may not be hired again too. Pirating directly affects actual human beings. Not the corporations that people assume.

We also saw a lot about how people haven’t the budget for comics and comics now being expensive. I won’t lie, a lot of comics absolutely are expensive. That however firstly doesn’t justify piracy/stealing – you’re not stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family, here. Secondly, the validity of that excuse is questionable: The Pride is less than $2 an issue. That’s less than a cup of coffee. So being too expensive does not really track as a real excuse all the time.

The end of the day, I’m a writer. I can’t imagine giving up on telling stories, no matter what. But looking at it objectively and rationally it was galling. It did for a second make me think about how I could justify the continued expense, when so many were not willing to pay a mere $2 for the work me and my team put out. But no, I won’t stop. That would be like punishing the victim of a crime, not the perpetrator.”

For extra insights and research, I reached out to a few other creators to see if they would be willing to discuss the issue beyond the character limits of public Twitter. The response was surprising and the following is just a sample of what I received; these are from Jimmy Palmiotti and Marc Lombardi.

How would you summarise your position regarding comic book piracy?

Jimmy Palmiotti: As someone who has had a number of books not sell well at all and get cancelled right away and then find out that the book was on three different torrent sites with over 100k downloads, it can get rather depressing and obvious to me that we have a problem here. As someone who has spent a lot of time approaching these sites and sending them cease and desist letters with proof of ownership only to have them ignored or the books taken down and put back up soon after, it becomes a frustrating waste of time and as someone who understand that this loss of income forces creators to have less revenue to create new stories which forces out first those most venerable by taking away any income, I have to say I am not a fan of the idea at all. As someone who has an office in a comic shop and sees what these people go through each month to make ends meet knowing tons of people are illegally downloading the books and not supporting comic shops, I am not a fan of this. As someone with his own site offering the Digital books at super reasonable prices to get people to try them knowing full well the audience for these books in the first place is limited, it’s frustrating.  This is not a good way to support those who make it their mission in life to create product for others to enjoy and people need to remember comics are a form of entertainment, not a necessary utility. Pirating something you may otherwise buy has major fallout on everyone involved in their creation and sale.

Marc Lombardi: I would say that I am staunchly against piracy of comics and any other art form for that matter. It’s theft, plain and simple, and no matter what excuses people have for piracy, it’s wrong. Pirating comics takes money directly (for small press and indie books) and indirectly (for corporate comics) from the pockets of comic creators. And while I know there are schools of thought as to whether it’s worth even trying to stop, I will do anything I can to raise awareness of the issues of comic piracy.

 

What do you see as the leading causes of comic book piracy?

Jimmy Palmiotti: I think a lot of people do not understand the impact it has on others or they feel they are owed something by the companies, or sadly the attitude that someone has a lot of money, so they won’t miss it or it will not have an impact and so on. I have heard every excuse: I don’t live near a comic shop- I cannot afford to buy all the books I want, books should cost half what they charge, publishers and creators only care about making money, I’ll read it for free and if I like it pay later, so no harm no foul, it’s like robin hood, robbing from the rich to give it to the poor, I was never going to buy the book anyway, so what does it matter, and so on. For each I have an answer, but in the end, it does have an effect on creators and it is called PIRACY for a reason. When we love something, we should take extra care of it and treat it with respect, and the same goes for comic books. I think a lot of people choose to ignore the arguments and just want what they want and make excuses for their bad behavior. They always seem to find that one excuses that seems so logical it cancels the theft angle out and they continue to do what they know deep down hurts the people that make these books.

Marc Lombardi: Entitlement and selfishness are what I would say are the main culprits. Some people explain is as not having the cash to pay for all of the books they want to read. Hmmm. Imagine that? Not having enough disposable or discretionary income to do everything you want? Well, that’s reality. There are MANY things in life that make people have to make hard choices. If your answer to all of those choices is “I’ll steal it” then you have a problem. I’ve seen some folks say that they only pirate books that they will buy later and the pirate them because they want to avoid spoilers for something they can’t afford right now. Others have said that the books are too expensive or too hard to find. Imagine transferring that sense of entitlement to everything else in your life and see the looks you get from people. “Well, your honor, everyone else has those Air Pods and I couldn’t afford them right now. So I just stole this one pair and I promise I’ll pay for it when I can afford it later on.” Other factors tend to be from folks outside of the U.S. who don’t have access to some of the same digital platforms as in the States…or don’t have an affordable shipping option. To those folks I say there are a lot of things we don’t have here in the US that is available elsewhere — and I refuse to steal that no matter how entitled I believe I am to a form of art. Not if it’s taking money from someone else to do it.

Some folks out there seem to think that those who engage in comic book piracy should be brought more into the fold, so to speak, rather than ostracised. Thoughts?

Jimmy Palmiotti: I think creators and companies should always make gateway books available on line to get people to try their books, and I would continue to offer previews to let people try a part of a book but these sites know what they are doing and how they are hurting creators and in the end, the people downloading know better as well, so seriously I just think it’s just bad behavior and the best we can do is continue to go after the sites and in the process educate those doing it to the impact it causes.

Marc Lombardi: I can’t think of any other field of work where I’d be asked to thank someone or embrace someone for stealing my work. Can you imagine being expected to be thankful and gracious to someone stealing from you? Maybe I should ask them to kick me in the nuts while they’re at it? I really think that any comics professional who genuinely thinks we need to embrace those who are actively and knowingly pirating comics has some shady stuff in their own past (or present) reading habits that they’re trying very hard to normalize. If the choice is accept or ostracize, put me in the column that would like to see anyone who pirates comics shipped off from the fandom for good.

But what about…?

By now it should be clear which side of the supposed debate I stand on but it would, arguably, be unfair if the other side was not represented in some manner. I trawled through various websites and randomly selected comments from self-confessed comic book pirates, ones where they attempt to justify their actions.

There does not seem to be any actual justification regarding the motivation behind comic book piracy. Claims of books being too expensive are countered by access to libraries. Claims of living in remote areas where there are no comic book stores are countered by legal online options.

That being said, not everyone seems entirely on board with fighting comic book piracy including writers for certain websites. This writer seems to appeal to the argument of degrees, that since comic book piracy deals with relatively small amounts of money (‘lunch money vs yacht money’), then it is not worth getting upset about. Which, of course, ignores the reality that small amounts of money are very easily the difference between title cancellation or not. Or a next series/title going ahead. Or creators being able to attend conventions to sell their wares. It is, quite clearly, an argument without any sort of logical merit especially from the perspective of independent creators.

This line of argument is nonsense.
Wrapping up…

It is clear that piracy has a tremendous impact on creators and their works. The obvious influence is of a financial nature, for independents each sale is potentially crucial for continued publishing or not. Even for the bigger publishers it can easily be a breaking point; imagine if even 10% of the 95,000 that Ted Brandt mentioned buys an issue, that would be an extra 9500 copies. Where the question marks start being raised at the 15-20,000 level, 9000 extra sales is massive. But it is not just money, as made clear in the testimonials it is also a matter of emotional impact on creators. An issue takes a month of effort from a variety of people to produce, it is certainly no small feat. To see these endeavours tossed aside and regarded as not worth paying for would be devastating.

There appears to be no valid defence in regards to committing comic book piracy. It is an act of making money from the work of others. It is an act of selfishness. It is an act of ignorance. It is an act that helps kill the very industry that ‘fans’ profess to love.

Note: The links in this article often lead to where you can directly purchase titles from online services. We strongly recommend supporting your favourite titles, heroes and creators by legally purchasing comics – especially from your local comic book store.

14 Comments

  1. Der

    A confession: I used to pirate comics

    I mean, I can use any justification you want: I was poor and comics are too expensive, there were no comic shops where I lived, the inventory when a comic shop opened was limited, etc, etc

    But you know what, still those are excuses.

    An aside: I’m from Mexico, live in Mexico, right now and yes, to us comics are expensive. maybe a 4 dollar comic is not much but that is like a day or more of work if you earn the minimum wage*. And the comic shops? I used to live in one of the biggest cities in the country, 4 million people or so. How many comic shops? ONE. maybe two, never knew if we had another. Now I live in the biggest city(8 million or so in the city, another 14 million or so in the metropolitan area) and we have like 10-15 comic shop, thats too low to me.

    Even with that aside, I don’t do piracy anymore because I just like it more when I can say yes, I saved and bought the book I liked. I was a pirate like when I was 20 or so( so like 15 years ago) and I was downloading every type of comic I could think of. Still, after a time I found out that I wasn’t reading all the comics I downloaded. Then I started buying my own comics(and videogames, and books, etc, etc) and I felt, I don’t know, ¿proud? that I was buying my own comic books. Sure it takes some time to save(my budget allows like 10 usd a month for comics/books/movies/games/etc) but I pay attention, check the reviewers I trust(like Greg and Greg here) but it makes me feel better when I buy something and I appreciate it more when I can buy it.

    *That is an excuse, because if you earn minimum wage you have other more pressing things to do with your money, so if you are in minimum wage here you won’t be buying new comic books no matter what, even if they cost 2 usd instead of 4

    1. Matt

      I can understand where you’re coming from, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.
      I grew up in very rural Australia where the nearest comic book shop was about 300KM away. Rather impractical to get to.
      Right now a single issue here costs, depending, somewhere around $6.99 AU which for someone on a minimum wage is a LOT of money to waste on what is essentially frivolous entertainment.

      My very small country town did, however, have a newsagent store and after having a chat with it’s owner they were able to order in comics. Not a great selection and they couldn’t order in specific titles but it was better than nothing.

      I love how you pointed out the feeling of pride actually owning something can give you. I can easily identify with that. I’ve tried reading comics electronically but, somehow, it doesn’t have the same feeling for me. The feel of the paper, being able to see the books on a shelf … that’s simply one of the things I enjoy about comics.

      1. Der

        ah yes, those were excuses I used to use to justify my piracy. In fact, I knew that I was in a privileged position because you know, I had internet and I can read in english, so even If i wanted to say “well there are no comic shops around” that was just an excuse.

        And the fact is, there are not that many comic shops around because of the language barrier. Not everyone speaks/reads english here, so selling english only comics is a tough sell.

        BUT, I’m glad to inform that, as of a few years, the comic newsmarket appears to be booming, and translated comics and manga are appearing all the time, at(to me at least) reasonable prices, I just saw a tpb of War of the Realms in 140 pesos( around 6-8 usd, so yey progress!

        And even when my collection is small compared to lots of people here, not having money to buy new comics all the time allows me to indulge in rereading comics, and I loove rereading comics

  2. Le Messor

    “I think a lot of people do not understand the impact it has on others
    I suspect that’s the big reason behind a lot of it (Hanlon’s razor here) : Never assume malice where stupidity is an explanation.

    I imagine most of the people who do it just don’t give any thought to it being wrong, let alone what it does to the creators.

    Which is, of course, the beauty of an article like this: Hopefully, it tells such people what the problem is, and thereby works as a preventative.

    That said, I don’t read digital comics even legally (but I do read web strips); as others have said, I prefer physical copies.

    Even with the stupid Australian prices (see Matt’s comment).

    I have often wondered, though, how many old, expensive comics get forged. That’s got to happen, right?

  3. Le Messor

    P.S.: “If you happen to read comic books then it can be safely assumed that you are a fan of the medium.

    Just yesterday, I think it was, I read a comment from somebody who said something along the lines of ‘comic books suck’ while at the same time making it very clear it had read many, many of them.
    (Yes, a lot of people noticed and took it to task for that. No, I don’t remember the exact comment or where I read it.)

  4. toothpaste

    Don’t normally comment on here, but as someone whose opinion on the subject has flipped in the past decade I’ll weigh in.

    I don’t pirate comics anymore, at all. Not only that but, as someone with limited money, I try very hard to ‘vote’ with my purchases – I look at buying comics as an investment in having the story continue. I buy single issues, too, to push up those sales numbers (by 1 each time, but still) and encourage others to do so with series I enjoy. I’m not the bad guy here.

    But I read WAAAAY less comics than I did back when I was downloading CBRs. It’s a very expensive medium as far as bang for your buck, and if you want to read the amount of comics you can read by pirating you’d spend hundreds of thousand of dollars a year. So that part I miss.

    As someone that would like to write comics at some point I eventually couldn’t reconcile doing that, though, and I dropped pirating altogether. However, most people that are drowning in downloaded comics aren’t going to do an about face, so I’ll just say this:

    Comic book piracy is never going to stop. It is never going to have anything but a negative influence on comic book creators. But it’s not going to stop.

    So the question becomes, how exactly do we work with the problem, if we can’t work around it? Maybe creators guilt trip pirates with notices of their lost revenue within comics, in the hopes of guilt tripping? Or creators heavily promote their patreon pages or kickstarters in their issues? There have to be ways to mitigate the damage, but people aren’t going to stop downloading comics for free.

    So

    1. Le Messor

      “I buy single issues, too, to push up those sales numbers (by 1 each time, but still)”

      I’m glad you feel that way. The exact opposite is one of my pet peeves – ‘Your contribution / lack of contribution is only one person; it won’t make a difference’.
      (I say ‘lack of’ because I’ve told somebody I don’t buy event comics because I don’t want to contribute money to them.)

      It’s true, but the reason it’s true is because pretty much everybody thinks that way. Until people stop thinking that way, it won’t change.
      So, to quote a different Michael than me: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.”

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