I have watched as the vast, ever growing numbers of comic book downloaders has grown from 700 to over 12,000 in the space of 2 years. Every Thursday and Friday, the comics that you buy at your local shop are torrented all across the globe where eager readers download them to read on demand.
Is this legal? Is it right? Those are questions I can't answer.
What I can say is here is a PROVEN delivery system, using FREELY available software that the users have said they prefer. Not Macromedia Flash. Not Adobe Acrobat. CDisplay and CBRs.
Let's face it - cbr is to comics what mp3s are to music - the way of the future.
Wired Magazine said it best:Most piracy doesn't spring from the desire to get free content. It comes from a desire to get it in a specific way. Successes like Apple's music business have shown that consumers will pay for content if it's offered at a fair price without unreasonable restrictions. Right now, comics publishers could enjoy a win-win situation - they could reach out to new fans and increase revenue - if they would just decide to take advantage of it. And if they don't? Worst. Decision. Ever.
The comics industry needs an iTunes Level distribution model to survive into the future.
Sadly, no such application exist currently, so we have decided to put our fate in the hands of those who would control this future - you.
Just a year ago, I wrote a message to Rich Johnston of Lying In The Gutters when he raised the question of what the future of downloadable comics might hold. Some of what I said then might be relevant now:
One big issue preventing the major publishers from embracing downloadable comics: take away their control of the distribution channel via Diamond...take away the costs of large-scale print runs and shipping...and suddenly the playing field looks a lot more level. An indie comic becomes as easy to find as the latest House of Infinite M Crisis tie-in.
This didn't happen with the iTunes Music Store partly because there's more to promotion and exposure of music than the online equivalent of rack space; television and radio are a big factor in the music world. And too, Steve Jobs cut a favorable deal with the majors to get their back catalogs into the iTMS...part of the deal being that iTunes isn't open to just any musician who wants to upload his or her own music and sell it. Apple has the mechanism and software for doing just that already in place...but hasn't made it available to the public to stay on the good side of the major labels.
With comics, television and radio exposure isn't an issue, so new content being displayed on a hypothetical "iTunes Comic Shop" would be just as good as showing up on the shelves of your local retailer. And that doesn't suit the business model of the major comics labels any more than it did the record labels.
All that said, I can imagine DC, Marvel, Image, and Dark Horse teaming up to form an online "Diamond Comic Shop" closed to any other publisher, using a proprietary format only readable by their software, and charging the exact same cover price for issues. This would just hurt the retailers while leaving the Diamond monopoly intact to gouge the public. Paying 99 cents for a single music track is steep, but it's less than the record labels would like; we could easily find Marvel and DC charging $2.99 for a comic book download and swimming in the profits like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin while locking out everyone else.
What we might want to do is find a simple format for downloadable comics -- an equivalent to mp3 -- and a simple but robust cross-platform reader available as a free download. The majors won't embrace it without some kind of DRM built in...but the DRM should be optional, for the indies who want to make their stuff free or don't mind people sharing.
Because the mp3 format was already out there and growing in popularity, the record labels were pushed in the direction of supporting iTunes against their greedier impulses, while the mp3 format has stayed available for individuals to use. That same compromise might work for comics as well.
What I didn't fully grasp at the time was that the open format was already in wide use: the .cbr file format used by comic bit torrenters. Armed with free bit torrent client software and free comics-reading software that can handle the .cbr format, a comics fan can go to certain naughty websites and download every comic that hit the stands this week, or a complete run of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's never-collected and never-to-be-reprinted masterpiece Flex Mentallo. When it's something that a company is selling even as we speak, it's no different from bootlegging copies of new CDs. But when it's something that the majors can't or won't release...the people uploading those scans are acting as samizdat archivists of comics history, filling a gap in the ecosystem left by the limitations of traditional print publishing. And when creators are publishing their own original material by uploading it in .cbr format...they're showing us what the future might look like.
Ultimately, I think we'll still need that "iTunes Comic Store" with digital rights management and onerous copy protection to get Marvel and DC and Image and Dark Horse on board. But just as the popularity of .mp3s acted as a spur to Apple and the music industry, folks like the guys behind Flashback Universe may be the ones who develop the momentum to make it happen.
There's only one actual comic available for download at Flashback Universe: Saturn Knight, a superhero story that acts as a breathless introduction to what appears to be a meticulously worked-out superhero continuity inspired by the Marvel Universe of the mid-Seventies. The art is just right, and the story presents an interesting conceit to justify the introductions. The cleverest part isn't in the story itself, but on the website: a set of character descriptions delivered by each of the main characters about one another. That one touch persuades me these folks might really have something worth coming back for. I don't think building a whole continuity all at once and introducing titles according to a preset plan is necessarily the wisest move -- every prior attempt to emulate Marvel and DC's present status by reverse-engineering it has failed. Besides, the majority of people who like superhero comics want more of the characters they already know, not new ones -- even if the new ones are similar, or better -- at best, the audience only seems willing to accept new characters who are blatant homages and/or allusions to the old and familiar, as we see in Astro City or Supreme or Big Bang Comics. So I'm not sure if this attempt will pan out...but I'm taken with the energy and enthusiasm and sincerity of the attempt, and I'll be waiting to see more.
(Thanks to Chris Sims, on whose blog I saw this project mentioned.)