This week: As usual, I fail to take a side in the latest online debates, agreeing wholeheartedly with both Steve Lieber and Colleen Doran in their opposite approaches to the online spread of their work. Plus, some more updates on my beloved .cbz format (a great option for legal online comics), and a standard-issue What I Read.
STEVE LIEBER OKAY WITH GIVING AWAY COMICS, BUT WOULD PREFER THEY’RE NOT STOLEN
STEVE LIEBER’s recent entry into a 4chan thread in which a member posted every page of Underground, the Image caving miniseries on which he collaborated with Jeff Parker and Ron Chan, taps into a variety of arguments creators, publishers, retailers and fans of comics and other intellectual property have been having as long as the Internet has made it possible to widely “share” copyrighted material. Lieber’s response to finding his work posted has been reported as innovative, and it was remarkably measured and well done, but his ability to retake control of the situation came down to some unusual circumstances, and the much bigger deal is really his subsequent decision to make the work freely available himself.
Since the story has been well reported already, the short version is that Underground was made available on 4chan, after which Lieber posted to the thread himself and, rather than angrily post about the theft of his work, engaged in a discussion about the work and his career with the other posters, and eventually made Underground and some of his other work available for download at his own website. Along the way, he posted a sales chart which showed a spike after Underground was posted on 4chan, though it wasn’t clear if the spike was after the work went up or after Lieber appeared in the thread.
This is the latest in a series of anecdotal instances in which the illicit spreading of copyrighted material enlarges the audience for that material, translating into greater sales, either because people who downloaded the work decided they wanted a permanent version and to support its owners, or because the greater visibility of the work reminded someone who was already interested that they wanted to buy it. I tend to be convinced by the anecdotes in some cases, but there are certainly anecdotes that go the other way. More recently (not in the period ostensibly covered by this column, but I’ve fallen behind and pretending it’s still nearly a month ago serves no real purpose) Colleen Doran, the creator of A Distant Soil, blogged at The Hill about the damage she worries that the free availability of her work has done to her bottom line.
So why has Lieber experienced a sales increase while Doran and others have seen sales slip away to online copyright infringement? For one, it seems like Undergound’s initial low sales were not due to readers finding the comic for free online, but instead few people reading it at all, legally or illegally. Underground could only benefit from increased visibility, but even so my suspicion is that much of the sales increase came after Lieber joined the thread on 4chan and did so in, for him, typically friendly fashion. Many of the posters don’t seem to understand how comics are produced or monetized, and it was Lieber (as well as artist Erika Moen) providing education on the matter rather than vilifying the original poster that made a big difference. Notably, this is not an opportunity that exists on peer-to-peer networks or aggregators of bittorrents; it was only because this was a thread on a forum that Lieber was able to interject as he did.
Doran’s piece focuses not only on lost money, but also on the injustice of losing control of her work to people with little personal investment in it. She has mentioned on her blog that sales and profits increased when she herself put her comics up online, but that she has never seen a similar dividend from others making her work available. Which I believe, just as much as I believe the cases where people say that “sampling” material online later led them to buy it. The spread of copyrighted material online clearly doesn’t affect every artist equally. Just as clear, from Doran’s point of view, is that the money to be made or lost and the rage over people taking a creator’s exclusive right to the distribution of material are related but separate issues. Lieber chose to overlook the injustice and try to turn the situation to his advantage, and I applaud him. But it’s certainly not something that every artist can do all the time—Doran mentions losing count of the illegal sources for her work at 145. Lieber’s experience is an encouraging sign, especially in how well the 4chan posters responded to friendly educating, but a tough one to know how to replicate.
Where I am especially encouraged is the fact that at the very least it is an argument against the notion that people online ideologically refuse to pay for content. It is however a reminder that on a computer it’s easy to lose sight of who is hurt by illegal downloading, and that constant reminders are necessary. I look forward to more experiments from people like Lieber and Doran in monetizing free online content, as they both do, and to there eventually being enough examples of how to do so that they rise above the level of anecdotal evidence (I’m particularly curious as to how long the higher sales of Underground lasted and how successful Lieber and Parker’s suggested $5 donations for the downloadable version of the comic has been). I also hope that we’ll eventually see more genuine research into how material spreads online and if trends leading to sales can be found, since it has occurred in at least some cases. Since this isn’t going away, in spite of whatever legislation is passed, it will be necessary to figure out how to make the best of it.
The moral rights of creators of content is a different issue. While I might be more convinced by the notion that that the online spread of work can lead to sales than is a Colleen Doran (though again, I have no doubt she is correct about her own case, and that gives her every reason to be suspicious of the entire notion), it strikes me as obvious that she has every right to object to her work being posted without her consent, and if she objects then it shouldn’t happen. Even if Doran were provably wrong and was leaving money on the table by not embracing illegal downloads, the copyright she owns on her work gives her the right to determine how her work is distributed. And she’s right, of course, that the illegal posting of her and other people’s work is not advertising; whatever advertising function it ends up playing is incidental and unintentional.
What Lieber’s experience shows is that the incidental and unintentional can sometimes be harnessed, and I’m very happy that he’s been able to make that work to whatever extent he has, but the important thing to remember is that no one example is proof that illegal downloads are “good” or “bad.” The ability to turn them to a creator’s sales advantage comes down to the circumstances, and it never overrides that creator’s rights to their own work. Lieber’s public stance is that he’s relatively okay with what 4chan did with Underground, Doran’s is that she’s not okay with what others have done with her work. I’m always going to be in the camp that applauds Leiber’s ability to make peace, but that doesn’t remotely preclude me from supporting Doran’s right to go to war.
Related: I interviewed Lieber about Underground and other stuff around the time it debuted.
TWO .CBZ UPDATES:
AN ADDITIONAL DETAIL I learned from Lieber’s move to give away several of his comics online is that I have been missing a step in my understanding of .cbz creation, one which his much larger audience than mine hit upon fairly quickly. The process that I previously laid out involves creating the underlying .zip file in Mac OS’s Finder, which is fine except that it inserts some unnecessary database files that can mess up reading the comic on a PC. Those files need to be removed to ensure that the comic will read correctly. Lieber recommend Zipcleaner, so I recommend it, too. My old tutorial still applies, but now make sure you run Zipcleaner after creating the .zip file.
Also, I’ve been doing further research into .cbz readers, since I liked the one I’d been using, FFView, but thought I could probably do better with one that had been updated more recently, and came across two that I liked, though both appear to be Mac-only. I should look for some PC ones. The first is ComicBookLover, which takes its organization and presentation cues from iTunes. However, many of its more useful features require registering and paying $25, which was too much money for me to justify choosing it over free alternatives, even if it is more full-featured. The free one that I found and liked is called Simple Comic. While FFView hasn’t been updated in a while, Simple Comic’s version 1.7 was released this year, and it’s cleaner and more streamlined than FFView. It also reads .pdfs, which is great, as that’s the format that a lot of the review comics I get these days come in. Like Lieber’s comics, Simple Comic is freeware, but the developer asks for donations, so I pitched in $5, the same amount that Lieber asks for. I haven’t downloaded any of his comics, having bought most of them once and Underground twice—in single issues and the paperback. I recommend them all, and if you go with the .cbz of .pdf versions, Simple Comic is a perfectly pleasant way to read them.
READ THIS WEEK:
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 #38 by Joss Whedon, Scott Allie, Georges Jeanty & Andy Owens
- Casanova: Luxuria #3 by Matt Fraction & Gabriel Bá
- Chi’s Sweet Home vol. 2 by Konami Kanata
Not as addictive as Vertical’s Twin Spica, but this is growing on me as the bigger picture is coming into focus.
- Fantastic Four #584 by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting & Paul Mounts
“Three” is picking up steam. As an FF fan, I had to pretend that Ben Grimm getting to spend some time as a human rather than being the Thing wasn’t something that’s happened several times before, but that aside it was enjoyable, and I’m surprised how well Steve Epting’s realistic take on the team is working for me after being fairly bored by Bryan Hitch’s. The only real problem I’m having with this arc is one that I’ve been having with Hickman’s run in general: how predetermined everything seems, with each of the single-issue stories from earlier in the run telegraphing their status as pieces to be assembled later and even the countdown to tragedy on the cover of each issue of this arc. The structure feels like it dictates the story more than the other way around, and at this point it’s going to need a very satisfying payoff to support all that weight. I’m on until the end of “Three,” but that end will determine if I stick with Fantastic Four past that.
- Gantz vol. 13 by Hiroya Oku
- Incognito: Bad Influences #1 by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
Mostly setup, but a very promising intro to the premise.
- Legion of Super-Heroes #6 by Paul Levitz, Francis Portela, Phil Jimenez, Yildiray Cinar, Scott Koblish & Wayne Faucher
For a long time, the fact that this wasn’t actively stupid to the point of offensiveness like many supercomics carried me through it, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s enough. Yeah, that makes no sense. Basically, I find this comic pleasant but am slowly realizing that it’s not exactly hooking me, though I’m kind of intrigued by the Legion Academy.
- The Muppet Show Comic Book: On the Road by Roger Langridge & Shelli Paroline
It’s weird; The Muppet Show is before my time, and it’s something that I have more experience of as a cultural phenomenon than as something I’ve actually seen, so it’s hard for me to gauge how well this does or doesn’t capture the flavor of the show (I mean, I’m not a total muppet newbie, but I certainly remember Sesame Street much better), but something that it exudes just makes it feel like it must. It’s so confident and consistent that it has to be getting it right. But that aside, this series has remained very funny and beautifully illustrated, and is quickly becoming my biggest reference point for the Muppets, and I can only imagine that the same would become true of any actual kids reading this ostensible kids’ comic.
- Papercutter #13 by Matt Wiegle, Tim Root & Jonas Madden-Connor
- The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror #16 by Evan Dorkin, Peter Kuper, Kelly Jones, Kelvin Mao, Tom Peyer, Tone Rodriguez & Lemmy Kilmister
Less bizarre than last year’s “Kramers Ergot” issue, but I think a lot funnier, with Evan Dorkin wreaking his usual gleeful havoc and a delightful combination that never would have occurred to me: Kelly Jones drawing a Homer-centric story.
- Strange Science Fantasy #3 by Scott Morse
I am loving the pure fun that Morse is clearly having with this series of done-in-one, high-concept mashups. Morse’s art has always blown me away, and here it looks as good as ever supported by silly ideas that are just good enough for one burst of cartooning. The details in this one, which borrows film terms to build a bizarre noir story, put it over the top for me, with inspired bits of literalism like the Key Grip having hands made of keys.
Images of Underground © Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber. Images of Strange Science Fantasy © Scott Morse.