The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 192 | iComics: On Image Comics’ DRM-free digital comics initiative

Leaving Proof 192 | iComics: On Image Comics’ DRM-free digital comics initiative
Published on Friday, July 5, 2013 by
Image Comics’ announcement of its DRM-free, direct-to-consumer digital comics sales platform took a lot of observers by surprise last Tuesday. How will this affect the digital comics sales landscape moving forward and what are the implications for readers and comics professionals?

I do think the idea of ownership is morphing, I think it’s morphing in a way that gives the consumer more ability with the content that they have.

The above quote is what Microsoft executive Phil Spencer said to gaming news site GameSpot at the height of the recent controversy over the company’s move to include built-in DRM safeguards in their soon-to-launch video game console Xbox One that would restrict players’ ability to share or trade games. The resulting consumer blowback to this feature and others, such as the requirement that the Xbox One “phone home” once every 24 hours to Microsoft’s servers to validate the user’s games as authentic purchases, has been massive. If the definition of ownership was indeed “morphing” (Why “morphing?” Why not “changing” or “evolving?”), gamers made sure that Microsoft heard their disapproval. On blogs, webcomics, Twitter, YouTube, and news sites, people were asking: When did it become okay to preemptively treat consumers like thieves and pirates? When did “buying” a game become “leasing” a game? When did video game rental became illegal? For a time, preorders for Sony’s rival PS4 console massively outstripped that for the Xbox One (which earned the derisive nickname “XBone” from the gaming community). A hilarious, if violent, animated GIF making fun of Microsoft’s absolute tone-deafness went viral.

Sony pounced quickly on the opportunity to ingratiate itself with gamers at Microsoft’s expense, releasing an ad during E3 poking fun at the arcane conditions for sharing or trading XBox One video games

and just generally earning gamer and consumer goodwill at E3 by saying pretty much the opposite of whatever Microsoft said about the Xbox One’s restrictive new “features”:

The outcry against the Xbox One was so bad—even the Navy Times weighed in on the console’s “phone home” once every 24 hours feature—that Microsoft ended up reversing course with regards to many of their next-generation console’s announced capabilities, doing an “Xbox 180″ so to speak, and did a little morphing of its own: Gone was Don Mattrick, the embattled, floppy-haired corporate face of the Xbox One launch, whose departure for mobile game giant Zynga was timed pretty conveniently as far as public relations goes. (The move is what some would perhaps describe as jumping from the frying pan into the fire, given Zynga’s recent troubles.)

So what does any of this have to do with comics?

Well, last Tuesday, Image Comics dropped a bit of a bombshell at the Image Expo in San Francisco. It wasn’t the news that Image has leapfrogged Marvel as the #2 supplier of trade paperbacks to comic book stores. Nor was it all the announcements of new titles from top-flight industry veterans and high-profile newcomers to the medium like award-winning film director Darren Aronofsky. These were all big stories, but nothing that was really too unexpected: Any reading of recent retail trends pointed to the seeming inevitability of Image surpassing Marvel in trade paperback sales volume. As for new titles and creators? Those get announced all the time and word of who was bringing what to Image’s publishing stable was already making rounds in various comics message boards days before the Expo.

Warren Ellis and Jason Howard's Scatterlands was the new DRM-free comics launch's headlining title.

Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s Scatterlands was the new DRM-free comics launch’s headlining title.

The announcement that took everyone by surprise was Image launching its own direct-to-consumer digital comics sales platform, one that would offer DRM-free, paid digital comics downloads in the buyer’s choice of format (PDF, CBZ, CBR, or ePub). By way of an analogy, this is somewhat akin to Image playing the PS4 opposite comiXology’s Xbox One. In the wake of the comiXology server crash of March 2013, the time has never been more ripe for one of the top five publishers to push forward a DRM-free digital comics initiative that will allow readers to legally make permanent back-up copies of their digital comics.

Why should any of this matter? Who cares if comiXology requires from users a constant Internet connection or alternatively, a proprietary app, to read a 99¢ comic, and that comiXology users can’t make back-up copies of the comic without becoming legally liable for breaking an enforceable contract?

Well, it matters because any economic system that allows for fair purchase transactions is built on a foundation of trust, and that trust goes both ways: Treating every consumer on the assumption that he or she is a potential pirate and a thief, or intentionally obfuscating the nature of a purchase transaction, calling it an outright purchase in the traditional sense of the word when it is really a limited license agreement, undermines that trust. It matters because many digital comics distributors make little explicit effort to inform their customers that when they are “buying” digital comics, the legal reality is that they are paying for is a limited license to read those comics, and that the distributor can cancel that license at any time, for any reason, and if that distributor goes belly-up, so too will the customer’s comics disappear without a trace from the digital ether, as customers of the now-defunct digital comics distributor JManga learned too late to be of any help to save their digital comics collections.

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. When the company shut down on May 30, their customers lost access to all the digital comics they purchased on the service. [click to view in larger size]

But isn’t a digital content distributor like comiXology only using DRM as a response to the threat posed by piracy? Isn’t it simply attempting to safeguard the profitability of its business? Yes on both counts. But the problem is that DRM doesn’t work as a piracy deterrent: games, music, movies, e-books, and digital comics get pirated anyway even with the most stringent copy-protections and in the meantime, it’s the legitimate buyer who has to deal with all the inconveniences that DRM gives rise to. The effect these inconveniences have on sales are nothing to sneeze at, either. Punitive DRM has been demonstrated to hurt e-book sales, and as we’ve seen in the music sector, it was only after Apple followed Amazon’s lead and dropped DRM from all music sold on its iTunes store that digital music sales really took off. Far from killing the music industry—which always seems quick to plead poverty whenever the discussion of copy protection and piracy comes up—the abandonment of digital music copy-protection actually helped music media sales actually reach an all-time high last year. That’s right. More music was sold last year than in any year since the the beginning of the history of recorded music.

DRM’s defenders will argue that requirements such as an always-on Internet connection or a regular “check-in” through the use of a proprietary app can also serve as avenues for providers to add value and functionality to media. When Phil Spencer said that the “morphing” of ownership gives “the consumer more ability with the content that they have,” he was only telling half of the truth: Yes, hosting purchased media within the walled garden of the provider’s “cloud” gives users the ability to access that media from any Internet-connected machine as long as they sign in to the provider’s service and it will surely afford developers new means to add online-only features that enrich the basic media experience, but keeping a purchased media file on a remote network should not preclude the ability to save a copy of that file on a local disk. The curtailment of the consumer digital right to make a back-up copy of a purchased media file is not necessarily a condition for the development and use of novel media functionality and new storage and distribution technologies. The imposed restrictions on making back-up copies of comics have little to do with technical limitations—anybody with a modicum of Internet know-how can set up a secure, “personal cloud” for remotely reading PDFs or any other media file on any Internet device using free syncing services like cubby or Google Drive—or the addition of online-only rich media functionality. What the restrictions are really about is ensuring that the consumer is kept dependent on the digital content provider for access to the media file after a purchase transaction has been completed.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a digital comics service that exclusively supports online-only or proprietary app-only access. I’ve read Marvel’s “motion comics” on Netflix and while they aren’t my cup of tea, I have no problem whatsoever with the implementation or the inability to save a copy of the motion comic on my computer. And that’s because Netflix is clearly and transparently labeled as a digital rent-all-you-can-for-a-flat-rate service, not a digital media sales platform: I didn’t “buy” the motion comic and so it would be unreasonable for me to expect that I would be able to back it up permanently to one of my Internet-enabled media devices.

Ultimately, the significance of Image Comics’ DRM-free entry into the digital comics sales arena is that it offers consumers another way to get and interact with their digital comics. I do imagine that most comiXology users are probably reasonably content with what they get for their money, freak occurrences like March’s catastrophic server crash aside. But for those of us who are looking for sufficiently different alternatives to comiXology, one that better aligns with our notions of pricing and fair consumer digital rights, Tuesday’s announcement was very good news, indeed.

What does this mean for creative teams?

Obviously, Image has been working a long time on its digital comics business model, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that the project gained a significant degree of urgency once word started going around that comiXology was no longer content to just lease out third-party publishers’ digital comics, and was looking to go into the business of comics publishing itself with its much-ballyhooed comiXology Submit program.

skullkickersvol4tp-web

Will Image Comics creators like Skullkickers‘ Jim Zubkavich, Edwin Huang, and Misty Coats stand to earn more if readers buy their digital comics direct from Image and bypass comiXology?

What I’m wondering about is, given everything we’ve hashed out above, and assuming that things such as catalogue, pricing, transaction security, and ease of use are comparable, is there any clear-cut justification why a reader would choose to “buy” an Image Comics product from comiXology instead of purchasing it directly from the publisher? As Skullkickers writer Jim Zubkavich revealed in a blog post last year, comiXology gets 35% of every Image Comic sold through its iOS and Android apps (Apple or Google get 30%, and the remaining 35% is variably split between advertising costs, the creative team, and Image Comics). Will bypassing comiXology and buying direct from Image mean that the creative team will earn more from a sale? That seems to me like it could be as compelling a reason as any (perhaps even more compelling than the DRM-free feature) to get a comic from Image’s digital store instead of comiXology.

This is all based on the assumption that Image Comics’ DRM-free digital store does find traction in the digital comics market, of course, and despite everything it has going for it, success in the arena is anything but assured. ComiXology has made it look easy, but one only need look at the much-reduced (and much-changed) market footprint of Graphic.ly and the desiccated virtual corpses of Uclick and JManga to be reminded of how difficult it was and continues to be to break into the digital comics market and maintain a sustainable, profitable business.

Skechers GoBionic running shoe review update: The first 180 km

Long-time Leaving Proof readers will remember that I reviewed Skechers’ minimalist running shoe offering the GoBionic a little over a month-and-a-half ago. Despite some minor issues with the removable sockliner bunching up and a seam rubbing against the top of my right foot causing some slight abrasion, the shoe felt light, flexible, and offered a slightly more cushioned alternative to my usual running shoes, the Merrell Trail Gloves (which I reviewed last year). I’ve since compiled close to 180 km on the shoes, running purely on asphalt/concrete surfaces and I have to say that they’ve broken in nicely—no more seam rubbing!—and the lightweight upper, while not as breathable as I’d like, never gets uncomfortably hot despite the absolutely baking weather we’ve been experiencing in the Lower Mainland recently. If there’s one thing that I’m a little disappointed about, it’s the amount of wear I’m seeing on the exposed foam on the sole. Here’s a picture comparing the sole of the GoBionic on the left, and my Trail Glove (which has about 650 km on it) on the right (the red arrow highlights the area of greatest wear):

Now granted, about a little over a third of the distance I’ve put into the Trail Gloves have been on much more forgiving dirt trails and the Trail Gloves are significantly more expensive than the GoBionics, but still, the disparity in the amount of wear between the two shoes, especially taking into account the large difference between the number of kilometers I’ve compiled in the two pairs and the fact that I was about 14 lbs. heavier when I first started running in the Trail Gloves (~142 lbs.) than I was when I first started running in the GoBionic (~128 lbs.), is a little startling. That being said, it isn’t so much a case of the GoBionic breaking down much faster than a regular shoe than it is a case of the Trail Glove’s full-length Vibram rubber outsole just being exceedingly tough (if you look at the GoBionic’s sole, you’ll see that the black, reinforced rubber impact pods have little noticeable wear on them as well).

Now hear this…

Just a little music to play you guys out into the weekend:

Nujabes (feat. Substantial & Pase Rock) – Blessing It

Discuss this article below or contact the author via e-mail
7 Responses
    • […] Leaving Proof 192 | iComics: On Image Comics’ DRM-free digital comics initiative July 5, 2013 […]

    • I’m a proponent of Mercy Sparx and am pleased that the character from DDP is finally resurfacing again. If you’ve missed the first issue, which hit a few weeks ago, then you should check it out. The second issue won’t be out until October because they are trying to let the first issue saturate so that the second issue order numbers through Diamond Direct are truly accurate. It’s an interesting ploy that side steps the all too common second issue misorder.

      I bring it up in part because I haven’t had time to slow down and do a full review for my beloved Mercy Sparx, but I will.

      I also bring it up because the letter to the fans in the back discuss how the comic came to be again on the shelves as a result of fan push. In that note pleasant things are said about online comic access allowing new creators and new characters to connect to a fanbase. Although it did point out that because of the fan push at conventions the creators still felt that Mercy Sparx needed a print presence to appease her particular fans.

      So, if you want a kick-tail demon vs angel story, or a small ode to the modern moment of print vs online, I recommend this comic. Like many readers, I still look apprehensively at online comics. I have yet to completely embrace them. The constant evolution is probably a good thing, but it also helps to keep me on the side lines waiting to see how these shake out. I’d hate to be the person that bought Beta Max before VHS took off. I’d also hate to be the person that went nuts over Laserdisc before DVD took hold of the market. During the slow but present changes to comic online distribution, I think I’ll still wait while I hold onto my books.

      Once upon a time, I’m sure that someone, somewhere said, “I like books but it just doesn’t feel like listening to a story teller to me.”

      • What digital comics distributors like comiXology need to do to get more people reading digital comics is to offer “more carrot, and less stick,” so to speak: Give readers a compelling reason to make the move to digital, and even give up the traditional notion of “owning” a comic book, by offering value and features that can only be achieved in digital comics. There will always be a segment of the comics-reading population that will balk at the idea of paying full-price for a digital comic when they realize that they will lose access to those comics if the distributor closes shop or even if it just goes down temporarily. Distributors need to dramatically cut the cost of “leasing” digital comics so that the perceived financial risk becomes relatively negligible from the reader’s perspective (I think it’s fair to ask in this day and age of mergers, acquisitions, and drastic and unpredictable market shifts whether comiXology, or any Internet-based tech business for that matter, will still be around ten years from now, although the risk one takes on with digital comics is probably no more than the risk of losing one’s physical comics in a fire or a flood). Alternatively, they have to enrich the digital comics reading experience so much that it becomes worth the risk and the loss of the traditional rights readers expect of their purchased products; i.e., they can’t make back-ups (not legally, anyway), they can’t lend or re-sell them, they can’t trade them, etc.

        Right now, I view digital comics as an adjunct to physical comics, not quite their 21st century replacement. They’re great for reading on the go if you’ve got them stored remotely, whether on a personal cloud or on a service like comiXology, but I like the visceral feel of reading the physical object and turning the pages. I do think that Image, Thrillbent, DriveThruComics.com (disclosure: Comixverse is sponsored by DriveThruComics.com), Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s Panel Syndicate, and a lot of other publishers, creators, and distributors are doing a lot to change the digital comics landscape though, by offering DRM-free alternatives to the comiXology model.

        • I wonder how much of the comic reader population is still ruled by an inherent “collector” mentality? Sure, lots of the 90s collectors that jumped into comics merely as commodities and grabbed every #1 in sight left after the bubble burst and they realized very few modern comics will have a resell value worth the investment of time and enrgy.

          I suspect most comic readers are like me, with a box of “worthless” comics that they are hoarding in a closet. Maybe not.

          The collector mentality will make it hard for a comi buyer to move into the distinctly non-collector commodity.

    • […] integrated store functionality and being limited to DRM-free files. [And you know we're all about DRM-free file formats here at the Comixverse—ed.] (PC […]

    • […] initiative launch actually comes a little over a year after Image shook up the industry with the surprise reveal of its DRM-free digital storefront. But any movement towards a DRM-free future for comiXology—and digital comics in general—is a […]

    • […] Image Comics got into the DRM-free digital comics game as well, opening a new digital comics store in July that had me feeling better about the future of digital comics after the problems of the spring (from Leaving Proof 192 | iComics: On Image Comics’ DRM-free digital comics initiative): […]

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