Jonathan Hickman and Carlos Pacheco's Ultimate Thor #2 was released on the Marvel App this past Tuesday night. An event which, at first glance, was not particularly noteworthy. For the past few months, new digital releases from comic book publishers that utilize ComiXology's framework have been showing up late on Tuesday nights, which means for West Coast readers in the United States, you may get your day & date digital comics (in this case, Ultimate Thor) twelve hours before your comic shop even opens. For me, it is a nice bonus, as I was able to read the comic in bed before I went to sleep.
Except it turns out Ultimate Thor #2 is not meant to be released until next Wednesday, November 10th. I did not discover the glitch until Wednesday morning when I went to look at the issue again, and found it had disappeared from "My Comics" in the app. Later that same day, I received this (unprompted) email from Marvel:
Thank you for your recent purchase of Ultimate Comics Thor #2 on the Marvel Comics App.
We regret to inform that your copy of this comic is currently unavailable. Due to a glitch, it had been prematurely placed on sale.
Unfortunately, we've had to temporarily lock your copy until next week's scheduled release date.
We apologize for the inconvenience that this has caused.
Thanks for making YOURS Marvel … Digital!
I certainly appreciate them attempting to be proactive, but there are still a number of unanswered questions. First, and most importantly, What Am I Actually Buying; The comic book itself (albeit in digital form), or simply a license to VIEW the comic book? I thought I was buying the comics full stop, similarly to when I purchase a song on iTunes. It's mine, I see the file on my hard drive. I can burn it to a CD, save it on an external hard drive, or use it in another program. With the Marvel App, I can't manage the files, and can only access them through the App's interface, but looking at the Storage Management, I see Ultimate Comics Thor #2, 18 Megabytes. It still exists on my device, except Marvel has gone ahead and locked the file that I've already paid $3.99 for.
I realize the ridiculousness, but this is akin to someone from Marvel breaking into my house to put a comic book sold early to me by my retailer in a lock box, with the promise that they would come back and open the box next Wednesday. No mention of a refund, in fact, after looking around, there's no mention of Terms and Conditions in the Marvel App or on their website.
The email I received later that night from ComiXology's Developer Team read, "This is normally a server error. Try deleting the comic in question and re-downloading (for free, of course)." Their lack of awareness of the problem points the finger at Marvel as the one dropping the ball here.
I understand mistakes happen, and in the new age of digital releases, this may be just the start of mistakes and quirks. But how Marvel responded to the situation is telling of their stance on the product we thought we were buying. Even though I paid for it, I have not actually "bought" anything, it is Marvel's content and I'm just paying a fee to access it at their discretion. At the moment, they are locking down content I have already purchased because they released it early by mistake. But if they have the power to do that, what is to stop them for changing contents after they have been released? Or locking down content because they no longer have the rights to a property. Will I have to buy it again from someone else? Without any kind of Terms and Conditions made clearly available, it is now hard to feel comfortable spending $4 to buy a comic book that may literally disappear overnight. It is also perplexing when Marvel understands the importance of the ownership issue through their relationship with Graphicly, selling Marvel Comics that can be on the Graphicly desktop app and mobile apps. But it still falls short. DRM is overly restrictive, and I am tethered to ComiXology or Graphicly's applications to read the books I have purchased. [Disclaimer: iFanboy is owned and operated by Graphic.ly, a digital comics platform that also carries Marvel Comics.]
I am as big a proponent of digital distribution as they come, but actions like this by a company get me nervous. The tethered approach to buying content has its upside, but not if it comes at the cost of the company continuing to access/control said content after it has been purchased. Instances like this certainly do not help a case against piracy. I do not advocate illegal downloads (an event which not only runs rampant with comic books, but it also something creators and publishers are all too aware of), but I also do not particularly care for waking up to find that a company has repossesed my comic books because of their own mistake. A big part of iTunes' success is that it was easier and better than piracy. Comics have it have it half right at the moment, but there is still a lot of ground to cover before digital distribution becomes the widespread norm.