The GeeksverseNEWS Round-up | Week of March 15, 2013

NEWS Round-up | Week of March 15, 2013
Published on Friday, March 15, 2013 by
Instead of the usual end-of-the-week news recap, today’s News Round-up will focus on the news of JManga’s recent closure, what it says about similar services like comiXology, and what this all means for your common sense consumer rights.

Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by comiXology. ComiXology reserves the right to revoke your license to Digital Content at any time for any reason…

… ComiXology reserves the right to modify or discontinue the offering of any Digital Content at any time.

- from Section 6 of the comixology Terms of Use

From an “ownership rights” POV, we’re just like Amazon, or Apple: you don’t “own” the books you buy from our digital store, you license rights to read them on supported/authorized devices. We may allow reading on arbitrary PCs, but we’re not going to support copying from device to device without going through our service, at least not any time soon.

- Dark Horse Comics Online Marketing Manager Matt Parkinson, Comics Alliance interview

… you buy the comic, and it looks like a purchase, right? There’s a ‘buy” button, but underneath the buy button, there’s a thing that says, by buying this comic, I agree that you’re allowed to come over to my house and punch my grandmother, wear my underwear, make long distance calls, and clean out the fridge.

- Author and electronic freedom advocate Cory Doctorow, talking to CBR TV about digital comics

It is our regret to inform you that JManga.com will be concluding its retail and viewing services. All existing accounts and private information will be deleted without further notification…

… As of May 30th 2013 at 11:59pm (US Pacific Time) users will no longer be able to view digital manga content on JManga.com. At this time all purchased and free digital manga content will be erased from all JManga Member’s accounts.

- JManga.com Retail/Viewing Service Termination and Refund Notice

ComiXology sure has a funny way of describing what it does. On the one hand, the company clearly states in its Terms of Use that it isn’t in the business of selling digital comics to its customers. They license digital comics to users. And yet, their site touts a slogan that says “Digital Comics: Buy once, Read Anywhere” and has a section for “Top Selling” and “Best Selling Digital Comics.”

top_sellers

How can a company that says it doesn’t sell digital comics ask its customers to buy digital comics from it and even claim that they have top sellers and best sellers? We’re not just trying to argue semantics here, although perhaps for many readers, the difference between licensing and selling probably borders on the academic, something only pedants and armchair lawyers argue about. But how many comiXology users out there truly understand the practical implications of the fact that when they “buy” a digital comic from the world’s leading digital comics distributor, what they’re actually paying for is a limited, revocable-anytime-for-any-reason license to read that digital comic?

Granted, the language found in comiXology’s Terms of Use is fairly standard stuff when it comes to software and digital media. Check the end user license agreement (EULA) that you have to agree to when installing a video game you think you “bought” for use on your computer and you’ll find the words “the software is licensed to you, not sold to you” or something to that effect. And we’re willing to bet that for most practical intents and purposes, the average software user or digital media consumer isn’t really all that affected by the conflation and confusion of the concepts of licensing and selling. But when measures put into place to ensure that licenses are not violated start to interfere with our common sense consumer rights or when advertising and marketing copy say one thing but the Terms of Use say another, then we have a problem.

For the customers of digital comics distributor JManga, the distinction between licensing and selling stopped being an academic issue and became a question of practical concern earlier this week, when the company abruptly announced that it was shutting down its operations and that all digital content purchased from its site would no longer be viewable by users by the end of May. And because JManga uses a digital rights management (DRM) scheme that prevents its users from making back-ups of the digital comics they licensed from the distributor—all the content is stored on JManga’s “cloud” of servers—that means that whatever digital comics JManga’s customers thought they owned will disappear by midnight, May 30. We imagine JManga customers are now engaged in a mad frenzy of taking screenshots of their digital comics collections before they all go down the tube, but keep in mind that according to JManga’s Terms of Service, this behavior is in direct violation of the contract users agreed to when they registered for the company’s services (“you agree that you will not… circumvent, disable or otherwise interfere with security related features of the Sites, APPs or features that prevent or restrict use or copying of any content”).

Pictured: Detail from the JManga.com Retail/Viewing Service Termination and Refund Notice FAQ [click to view in larger size]

Pictured: Detail from the JManga.com Retail/Viewing Service Termination and Refund Notice FAQ, stating that users cannot download the manga they have purchased and that they will no longer be able to read them after May 30. [click to view in larger size]

Earlier this week, comiXology’s servers buckled under the strain of a Marvel digital comics promotion launched at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas—we discuss this incident and the specifics of comiXology’s DRM system and how it compares to the rest of the digital entertainment industry here—and the service’s users got a small taste of what the JManga community is now being subjected to. What bothers us about all this isn’t so much the vagaries of the network infrastructure and cloud-based storage system used for digital content. Rather, what is troublesome is a seeming lack of transparency when it comes to marketing copy and the language of user transactions—when JManga or comiXology use misleading terms like “buy,” “sell,” or “purchase” when they actually mean “license,” is it any wonder that users voice their surprise and displeasure when they find out that they only have a limited and revocable set of digital rights to the goods they paid for and that they will lose their expensive digital comics collections if their distributor suddenly decides to close shop?

A list of the problems posed by DRM-protected books: Feel free to re-post/share/print out this image (click to view in larger size)

A list of the problems posed by DRM-protected books: Feel free to re-post/share/print out this image (click to view in larger size)

In addition, the pricing of the digital comics offered by JManga, comiXology, VIZManga.com, the Dark Horse Digital Store and many other outlets that employ restrictive DRM don’t seem to be in scale with the limited features their license affords the user, at least when compared to the features offered by physical comics or even non-DRM protected, downloadable digital comics, such as the ones sold on sites like ComicMix and Drive Thru Comics [full disclosure: the Comixverse is sponsored in part by Drive Thru Comics]. “Buying” a digital comic for the same or similar price to that of its print counterpart or of another non-DRM protected digital comic doesn’t seem like a fair deal for the consumer when that digital comic can be deleted* by the distributor from the user’s online storage account and devices at any time for any reason and it can’t be legally copied even for back-up/archival purposes. It is only reasonable that consumers expect that the pricing of these DRM-protected digital comics reflect the stringently limited digital rights that are tied to their licenses, relative to the rest of the market.

The idea that we’re all just licensing entertainment instead of buying it has been in play long before the widespread digitization of media or even the rise of electronic communication, of course. Most of us understand that owning a physical, information-carrying artifact like a comic book doesn’t equate to owning the rights to the information contained within it. But now that we are in an era where transactions in pure information are becoming more commonplace, a time when the lines between selling and licensing are being increasingly blurred and our digital privacy is under a constant threat of contraction due to corporate and political pressures, we should be more vigilant than ever and pay more attention to the fine print when we pay for digital media. What am I actually getting in exchange for my money? What am I actually consenting to and what rights and protections am I giving up when I agree to a company’s particular Terms of Service? These are questions that we should reflexively ask those engaged in the trade in digital goods. Because no one else is going to ask these questions for us, and if some of these entities would have their way, we would never really find out what the real answers are until it is too late.

*This isn’t just some theoretical scenario. As iFanboy staff writer Benjamin Simpson found out in 2010, comiXology can access a user’s account and selectively delete purchased comics without prior notice.

Recommended reading

Below are links to articles, from The Comixverse and elsewhere, that cover issues related to those discussed in today’s News Round-up.

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