Thursday, June 07, 2012
The Virtual Honesty Box
As a fan of comic book art, I'm often thrilled to encounter areas where copyright or trademark law and comic books intersect. As is the case in other media, the current business models of comic book publishers and creators has been threatened by the ability of consumers to access their work online without paying for it. Many comic publishers are worried about easy migration of content from paying digital consumers to non-paying digital consumers. Of course, scans of comics have been making their way around the internet on, or sometimes before, a given comic's onsale date for some time now. As in other industries, publishers have dabbled with DRM, and publishers have enbraced different (and somewhat incompatible) methods for providing consumers with authorized content. Publishers' choices sometimes lead to problems with vendors and customers, as I discuss a bit below.
While services like Comixology offer a wide selection of content from most major comics publishers, they are missing chunks of both the DC Comics and Marvel Comics catalogues. DC entered a deal to distribute 100 of its graphic novels (think multi-issue collections of comic books) exclusively via Kindle. Marvel Comics subsequently struck a deal to offer "the largest selection of Marvel graphic novels on any device" to users of the Nook.
Sometimes exclusive deals leave a bad taste in the mouths of other intermediaries. DCs graphic novels were pulled from Barnes & Noble shelves because the purveyor of the Nook was miffed. Independent publisher Top Shelf is an outlier, offering its books through every interface and intermediary it can. But to date, most publishers are trying to make digital work as a complement to, and not a replacement for, print.
Consumers are sometimes frustrated by a content-owner's choice to restrict access, so much so that they feel justified engaging in "piracy." (Here I define "piracy" as acquiring content through unauthorized channels, which will almost always mean without paying the content owner.) Some comics providers respond with completely open access. Mark Waid, for example, started Thrillbent Comics with the idea of embracing digital as digital, and in a manner similar to Cory Doctorow, embracing "piracy" as something that could drive consumers back to his authorized site, even if they didn't pay for the content originally.
I recently ran across another approach from comic creators Leah Moore and John Reppion. Like Mark Waid, Moore and Reppion have accepted, if not embraced, the fact that they cannot control the flow of their work through unauthorized channels, but they still assert a hope, if not a right, that they can make money from the sales of their work. To that end, they introduced a virtual "honesty box," named after the clever means of collecting cash from customers without monitoring the transaction. In essence, Moore and Reppion invite fans who may have consumed their work without paying for it to even up the karmic scales. This response strikes me as both clever and disheartening.
I'll admit my attraction to perhaps outmoded content-delivery systems -- I also have unduly fond memories of the 8-track cassette -- but I'm disheartened to hear that Moore and Reppion could have made roughly $5,500 more working minimum wage jobs last year. Perhaps this means that they should be doing something else, if they can't figure out a better way to monetize their creativity in this new environment. Eric Johnson, for one, has argued that we likely don't need legal or technological interventions for authors like Moore and Reppion in part because there are enough creative amateurs to fill the gap. The money in comics today may not be in comics at all, but in licensing movies derived from those comics. See, e.g., Avengers, the.
I hope Mark Waid is right, and that "piracy" is simply another form of marketing that will eventually pay greater dividends for authors than fighting piracy. And perhaps Moore and Reppion should embrace "piracy" and hope that the popularity of their work leads to a development deal from a major film studio. Personally, I might miss the days when comics were something other than a transparent attempt to land a movie deal.
As for the honesty box itself? Radiohead abandoned the idea with its most recent release, King of Limbs, after the name-your-price model adopted for the release of In Rainbows had arguably disappointing results: according to one report, 60% of consumers paid nothing for the album. I can't seen Moore and Reppion doing much better, but maybe if 40% of "pirates" kick in a little something into the virtual honesty box, that will be enough to keep Moore and Reppion from taking some minimum wage job where their talents may go to waste.
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I also sympathize with the small and independent publishers, but I doubt there is much else they can do to fix the problems in the system on their own. The comics industry is dominated by two firms—Marvel and DC, owned by Disney and Warner Brothers respectively. Together they account for about 65-75% of all comic sales; no one else has even 10% of the market. (See http://www.diamondcomics.com/Home/1/1/3/237?articleID=121071) The industry seems now to be suffering from a lot of the problems the recording industry had 10-15 years ago—a reticence to enter digital distribution, a lack of a common file format, and a lack of a single store to buy products from multiple publishers. The big players' solutions have basically echoed the early failures of the music industries—creating their own proprietary file formats/programs, entering into exclusive deals for distribution, making only some content available online, etc. Just as with the music industry, consumers don't really like the restrictions, and many of them are using the lack of a good solution as an excuse to engage in "piracy." Until DC and Marvel sit down and figure out how to make their catalogs available in a single store (or, rather, multiple single stores) using uniform file formats, the situation is not going to improve. Unfortunately, the small publishers and indies just don't have enough market share to fix the system on their own, so we'll probably continue to see things like the honor box.
(The problem could, of course, be resolved through legislation—e.g., a mandatory non-exclusive license for online comic sellers—but I don't see this as remotely likely under present circumstances.)
Posted by: Charles Paul Hoffman | Jun 7, 2012 9:57:00 AM
In Israel this week there is an interesting development in which authors are protesting against publishers and bookstores' cutback and deals, asking the public to NOT buy their books at ridiculous almost-free prices and claiming that the only winners are the publishers [and possibly, at least short term, the consumers] and the big losers are the authors.
Posted by: orly lobel | Jun 10, 2012 6:55:31 AM
Charles, thanks for those additional insights on the sales figures of the big two comics houses, compared to their competitors. I don't know, of course, whether the "right" distribution model would necessarily change the fortunes of the Moores and Reppions of the comic industry, but I'm inclined to agree with you that format restrictions tend at best to frustrate fans.
Orly, that's a fascinating response by authors, and one that is not necessarily surprising. Along those same lines, I'm curious to see how the antitrust suit against Apple here in the United States plays out. You may recall that several publishers have settled with the DOJ in adopting Apple's higher-retail price agency model over Amazon's lower e-book pricing. In both cases, lower prices threaten existing business models. We'll see if the appeal to the public yields better results in Israel than experts are predicting for the antitrust suit here.
Posted by: Jake Linford | Jun 11, 2012 11:02:39 AM