There was a time (which seems like much longer ago than it actually was) when I had an infallible formula for goosing a discussion to life on this site. I would employ this formula whenever I was feeling scrappy or puckish.
Well. Whenever I was feeling unusually, particularly scrappy or puckish.
The formula was as easy to remember as it was to use:
[anything] + “piracy” = *@#%!&^*!!!!!!!!!!!²
If you’re a relative newcomer to these parts—if you’re the Elusive New Reader who found us after DC launched its New 52 initiative, for example—I’m not sure I can convey how well the topic of piracy chummed the waters even as recently as a couple of years back. iFanboy could essentially do a themed “piracy week” where I’d write something on the topic and get scores of responses, then Mike Romo would post his take on the same topic barely two days later and he’d get even more scores of responses. People were not afraid to repeat themselves. The downloaders were not shy. Pirate talk (yarrr) turned people into partisan evangelists, especially the defensive ones with guilty consciences. It was a subject that everyone seemed to have such a strong opinion about that their opinions came with a complimentary opinion about the stupidity of your opinion. I couldn’t begin to tell you which side had more members, or whether those numbers shifted over time; the din of passion vs. passion used to take over almost immediately.
I get the sense that would not happen today. I say that as someone who recently posted a column saying, “It feels like everyone just has the same five arguments on this topic over and over again,” and readers immediately, helpfully began making my point (and those five arguments) in the comments as if I had blown a dog whistle in a kennel.
Even in that context, I cannot imagine piracy moving the needle in 2013. Mark Waid and others discussed it at a Comic-Con panel, repeating the classic greatest hit “piracy benefits comics” canard in the way Skynyrd repeats “Freebird”, and that was the first time I’d thought about the subject in almost a year. Without even a byte of data to substantiate my claim, it seems like the argument about piracy is over, and it seems like the pirates lost it.
Am I living in a dream world? Hanging out with a better class of people? Aging out of the demo?
Is piracy even still a thing?
I am constantly peppering the manager of my neighborhood comic shop with questions about the State of the Business, and we used to talk about piracy all the time before comiXology ruled the earth. I remember him telling me years ago about a “customer” coming into his store, asking for all kinds of help picking out what was good on the shelves, and then saying, “Thanks for your help! I’ll have to download those when I get home,” and walking out. It fit neatly with the Napster narrative that you’d hear when .mp3s were birthed into the mainstream: oh, my God, there’s a whole generation of lawless vandals who’ve grown up with such easy access to this stuff that it doesn’t even occur to them it’s wrong. Comics are doomed unless we outlaw the internet.
Then, as with Napster and iTunes, the content creators made a legal, straightforward digital option available, and within a year I essentially never heard another word about piracy again.
Oh, they dragged their heels. Even accounting for the fact that iPads and superKindles didn’t exist yet, the amount of time between when popular digital comics could have existed and when they came into existence was like a missed epoch in internet years. Nonetheless, arrive they did, and the din promptly died down. I’m sure there are people who are still saying, “Yeah… but the image quality isn’t good enough, and you don’t really own the files.” Then they hear (from Ron Richards!) that Image started selling DRM-free files to consumers and say, “Yeah… but it’s total bullshit that they cost as much as the print versions. Until they drop the price and iPads inject endorphins into my bloodstream every time I get to the last page, they leave me no choice but to keep liberating content from The Man.”
These are people who have doubled down so many times they forgot how to fold. I believe the Bush administration used the term “dead enders” during Iraq. They’re going down with the pirate ship; I don’t think they’re a fair representation of any group. What about everyone else, though?
I know a woman twelve years my junior who listens to 90% of her music on Spotify, and to my mind comiXology is really more analogous to Spotify than iTunes. No, you don’t “own” the content, but do you really need to carry the hit of this summer around with you everywhere for the next twenty years? The woman in question never gives a second thought to any of this, never feels the need to explain her radical non-owning behavior. The other 10% of her music, she just rips from videos on Youtube. She never gives that a second thought, either.
Maybe that’s the piracy blind spot. Maybe it goes on constantly, but you never hear about it anymore because it’s been with the pirates for so long that it never even comes up or crosses their minds.
The good news is, whether piracy has been defanged or just gone further underground, it doesn’t seem to be killing comics as overtly as people once fretted. Legitimate digital comics are selling robustly and growing. Better yet, they’re growing without hurting print sales in the slightest. I think I like that ending most of all: what if no one talked about piracy anymore because, in the end, it didn’t matter either way?
Jim Mroczkowski never wants to hear about the smell of the paper again as long as he lives.