Yesterday, Image Comics announced that they would be offering DRM-free digital comics for sale on their website. The announcement is a game-changer for the comics industry, which has, for the most part, avoided the "ownership" model of DRM-free downloads and clung to the "license-to-view" model that comiXology has made very successful. A decade ago, the music industry underwent a transformation to the ownership model. Will that happen to the comic book industry, or, like the film and television industry, will they continue to resist?
In a way, the ownership model is actually the conservative one. After all, when one buys a physical comic, one owns it, and can do anything one wants with it. Why should the format change that? But, with the advent of digital media, the entertainment industry in general has done their best to change the paradigm to one where consumers pay a fee for the right to read, view, or listen to a product for a limited time or on a single device. This has serious implications for consumer rights, including the right of first sale, which applies to individual consumers as well as institutions like schools and libraries.
On the other hand, the existence of digital media itself threatens tradition. Apart from the music industry, pretty much every sector of the entertainment industry is still fighting, dollar signs in their eyeballs, for the license model. After all, what could be more attractive than the ability to sell the same product over and over to the same customers as platforms and formats evolve? And isn't this what happens with physical formats, from vinyl to cassette to compact disc, from VHS to DVD to Blu Ray, or even within a single format with the production of new editions of books, re-releases of movies, or remasters of classic recordings?
For many companies, digital media is mysterious and scary, representing a potential shift where one consumers buy one copy of a product and keep it forever. I've paid for six copies of Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction in my lifetime, but the last one I bought was on iTunes, and it's travelled with me as I've upgraded devices and formats since then. But it's not just content providers that feel threatened.
There's been a notable current of mistrust amongst retailers in response to digital media. It's not unfounded. How many video rental stores do you see open nowadays? Barnes and Noble is in trouble, Borders is gone, and you don't see a lot of big record stores anymore either. Sure, there will always be a market for physical goods, but the days of giant chains and lucrative corporate ventures seems to be over in this area, as business moves to independent stores that offer a richer experience, exemplified by the vinyl record market. The video game industry is obviously worried about this too, with all the talk about the used game market and DRM that forces used game purchasers to buy a license to play as well. In fact, Image's announcement yesterday has some of the same "rock star" feel as Sony's PS4 PR coup at E3, which forced Microsoft to change their policies on DRM for the X-Box One, especially with the star power behind all the new series they announced.
The comic industry is unique in that the retail market has a sort of monopoly, with Diamond being the sole distributor in North America, and prices being set by publishers instead of retailers. When Dark Horse Comics tried to set a digital price point lower than their physical one last year, retailers reacted very harshly, allegedly threatening to refuse to stock Dark Horse books if they went through with their plans. I've seen Mark Waid, whose Thrillbent Comics has offered DRM-free downloads for some time, and reportedly even seeds torrents of their books, catch some flack on Twitter for his support of the digital market. Even some fanboys, being fanboys, passionately despise digital comics and fear they mean doom for the industry.
And then there's the boogeyman: piracy. While a legitimate moral concern, the threat of piracy has become a handy excuse to validate restrictive DRM and the dismantling of consumer rights, in almost the same way terrorism is used to justify dismantling privacy rights. Rather than admit that they don't give consumers the product they want to buy, a lot of companies are all to happy to blame declining sales on piracy, a policy which punishes legitimate consumers more than it does pirates by making the products they pay for money for more complicated and restrictive than the free, pirated versions. After all, pirates don't have to play by the rules, and they'll always be a step ahead of DRM, so it really serves no purpose at all. In an interview with Wired magazine, Image Publisher Eric Stephenson seems to agree:
My stance on piracy is that piracy is bad for bad entertainment. There’s a pretty strong correlation with things that suck not being greatly pirated, while things that are successful have a higher piracy rate. If you put out a good comic book, even if somebody does download it illegally, if they enjoy it then the likelihood of them purchasing the book is pretty high. Obviously we don’t want everybody giving a copy to a hundred friends, but this argument has been around since home taping was supposedly killing music back in the ’70s, and that didn’t happen. And I don’t think it’s happening now.
Image has a lot to gain here. They're an independent company, albeit a big one, competing with giant corporations like Time Warner and Walt Disney Co., the parent companies of DC and Marvel. While that might seem like a disadvantage, it gives them a lot more flexibility, which is what put them in this unique position to make such a drastic and innovative move. If it pays off, and DRM-free comics are the success proponents expect them to be, Image could gain a huge digital market share before Marvel and DC are able to react.
If you're a proponent of digital comics, and you've been asking for DRM-free digital comics as I and many others have, this is the time to support what Image is doing. Head on over to their site and put your money where your mouth is. And if you're new to digital comics, check out my guide for choosing a good reading device, get one, and start supporting this too, as it represents an opportunity to support independent comics on an unprecedented mainstream scale, through Image Comics, which has surplanted Vertigo as the most prominent and successful publisher of creator-owned comics in the last decade.
“Image Comics was founded by and for creators,” said Stephenson in the keynote addess at yesterday's Image Expo. “Whereas the dominant conversations at other companies are about licenses and franchises and the executives steering their ‘properties’ toward success, the conversation at Image – the only conversation at Image – is about the creators.”
Stephenson is right. The Outhouse spends a lot of time mocking the Dilbertesque antics of Marvel and DC, while independent publishers, with Image in the lead, are producing comics that blow away most of the Big Two's output from a creative standpoint, such as Image's Saga, Dark Horse's Mind MGMT, or Oni's The Sixth Gun.
“We’re making gains on our competitors in the marketplace,” he continued, “but units and dollars aside, we’re doing even better than that when it comes to talent, because when it comes to talent, we’re not just gaining on them, we’re passing them by.”
With the revolutionary move of offering DRM-free digital comics on a large scale, Image is passing the big publishers by again. It's an exciting time to be a comic book fan. The gauntlet has been thrown. How will the industry respond?
We sent out inquiries to a lot of independent publishers and comics personalities last night, but have yet to hear back from any of them. No word yet on whether this is because of a general reluctance to comment, dislike for The Outhouse, or because I was totally drunk when I sent the emails ("Heyy Mark Waid, I looooove you, man!1"). If you're a publisher or a creator and you have something to say, we'd love to hear what you think about all this. And if you're a reader, please share your thoughts below as well.