Comics Piracy – Strange New Turn?

Shortly after Marvel and DC’s legal foray against the comic download site Z-Cult FM, another download site, ComicSearch, has been sent a cease and desist letter by Marvel demanding it remove trackers for illegal electronic copies of their titles.

Torrent Freak reports that Deicist, the administrator of Comicsearch, wrote a letter to Marvel arguing that a good part of the reason for the recent surge in sales of comics and the growth in the comic market was the laissez faire attitude that the publishers took toward Internet downloads of their comics (in 2002, publisher CrossGen felt its online promotions boosted sales back in 2002, though sadly not enough to prevent its demise), but Marvel countered swiftly with a cease and desist arguing instead that “People download comics not because they don’t want to buy them, but because they want an electronic version they can read, and organize more easily without damaging their precious print versions.”

The site is now removing trackers for Marvel comics.

This may seem a victory for comics publishers who understandably want to protect their copyright – we’ve seen much harsher action from other publishers over the years (The Simpsons, anyone?) to keep their carefully built brands the way they want them. But as the comic retailers website ICV2 points out, there is the possibility that it could become a Pyrrhic triumph.

In his open letter to Marvel Deicist argued that the publisher may not want to emulate the Recording Industry Association of America, which has won numerous legal battles with music downloaders and totally lost the war, and prompted a huge amount of resentment and anger toward the organisation.

IVC2 suggests Marvel and other publishers could eventually be involved in a “whack-a-mole” conflict as new file sharing sites, with servers in various countries, pop up all over the place. (Indeed, many file sharing sites are already outside the US).

A strange twist in the US publishers’ attempts to protect their investments comes news that DC Comics recently demanded that an ebay auction for a Batman convention sketch (see right) be pulled on the grounds that it infringed DC copyright (although it might also have been pulled because it was homo-erotic), which may result in having a considerable impact on the income of some comics artists.

Rich Johnston first reported the story on his Lying in the Gutters column on Comic Book Resources, revealing that “one artist, let’s call him Christian (because that’s his name) found out when his auctions were suspended by eBay after Warners requested it.

“The Director of Warner Bros Entertainment’s Worldwide Anti-Piracy Corporate Communications told Christian ‘no one is authorized to manufacture, reproduce, copy, sell and/or offer for sale any products/services which utilize the Batman Property without the express written permission of Warner Bros. The drawing which you have offered for sale has not been authorized by Warner Bros., therefore we suspended your auction. I apologize for the inconvenience of your suspended auction; however, I hope that you understand our position. Further, please be assured that we never attempt to single-out any one, or group of, sellers. In that regard, please feel free to forward any other questionable auctions to our attention and we will be sure to investigate and take appropriate action.'”

As Rich points out, it’s entirely understandable that the comic publishers wish to protect their characters, but could this mean an end to the well known practice of comics artists drawing sketches of even more well known comic characters and charging for them at conventions to supplement their income?

Also, how might this action also affect people trying to sell original comics art either at conventions or online?

This latest action strikes me as rather heavy-handed (although of course it might be more related to the actual image iteself in this case, rather than the actual practice of selling character sketches). As Rich says in his column, charging for character sketches is technically in breach of copyright and Warner Brothers or other publishers/studios are entitled to issue such notices and cancel such auctions, “but,” he cautions, “if they were to take the same attitude to comic book creators industry-wise, it would have disastrous consequences for many.

“Especially, say, if this was extended to selling original art returned to the creator by the publisher.”

“Every comic book convention I have ever attended has had a plethora of comic book artists doing sketches of comic book characters for money,” points out blogger Rick Rottman, who picked up on the story. “Some artists charge hundreds of dollars for an inked sketch of a comic book character. I can’t even begin to guess how much revenue comic book artists are able to earn doing sketches at conventions. If the official position of Warner Bros is that no one is authorized to reproduce and offer for sale any product which utilizes a DC Comics intellectual property, I have to believe this will have a monumental impact to the whole comic book convention sketch business.

“What would happen if comic book artists couldn’t do commissions at conventions?”

Rottman feels fans would certainly have more money to spend at a convention on comics and other licensed material rather than sketches, but I’d argue that if artists found themselves being threatened with copyright infringement, would they then stop attending them? It’s a strong possibility, certainly in the US where charging for sketches is more commonplace and charging for sketches has long been a way for an artist to earn extra money.

On the other hand, if convention organisers then have to start paying fees and expenses to creators to get them to attend an event because they can no longer make money drawing sketches, would this actually be a bad thing?

It might ‘professionalise’ comics conventions in the same way that British literature festivals pay author fees and expenses for their attendance, although it would also probably mean less artists would be in attendance.

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



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