The iFanboy community has discussed piracy ad nauseum over the years, but one aspect of it has been woefully untouched upon: amid all our bickering about downloading, we’ve never spared a thought for uploading.
Last week, curiosity finally got the better of me. I put out a call to the scanners to tell their story. I even avoided using the word “piracy” out of some misplaced attempt at sensitivity, only to find that almost everyone who responded said, “Yeah, somebody told me you wanted to talk to us pirates?” The resulting conversations have fascinated me more than any I’ve ever had on the topic.
Below is the first of those conversations. My correspondent is a recently retired scanner prominent enough on The Scene for his handle to be familiar even to a dilettante like me. During his prime, he informed me, he was scanning sixteen to twenty books every week. We discussed how the process worked, the teamwork involved, and why he eventually left the game:
How long were you scanning?
I started in 2004 and quit this year.
Do you remember the first book(s) you ever did?
Absolutely. I won’t say what it was because I don’t want to give too much away about myself but it was a series that hadn’t been scanned at that point and it was from a small and defunct publisher.
What made you decide to start (and stop, for that matter)? I am assuming that you were downloading first and decided to “pay it forward” at a certain point, but what if anything was the tipping point?
Going back to the last question, the series I started with wasn’t very well known, but featured artists who had gone on to prominence. I was intrigued by the idea of taking something analog and making it digital. It required a lot of problem solving – testing out hardware and software, tweaking settings, and comparing different outputs. I may not have cured cancer or fed the famine-starved, but I still had a sense of accomplishment when I was done. When I was done, I felt like I could then share this publishing “gem” with others who would appreciate it. Everything snowballed from there.
As to why I quit, the “Scene” has become petty and incestuous. No one cared about “preserving” comic books in a digital form anymore. It was all about getting YOUR copy out FIRST so that you could flood the fileshares before someone else could get their version out just to acquire digital kudos from those around you. I grew wary of the “Race” and took a hard look at the current digital space. Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, and even Archie have been pushing more and more digital initiatives. If digital archiving was really my goal, and not piracy, then wasn’t I fooling myself by continuing to scan and edit comics that the publishers were offering in a pure digital form? DC’s push for “day and date” releasing of all their mainline titles cemented it for me and I stepped away.
How many books would you say you’ve put online?
It’s hard for me to nail down any sort of exact number. One thing I often did was scan a book and hand off the raw images to someone else to edit. Plus, I used several different scanner identities over the years. A quick search of my files nets me at least 6,000+, but I honestly forget some of the books I’ve done or identities I’ve used. Plus adding in what I handed off to others can easily double that amount if not triple it. But as I said, I was never interested in tracking my efforts, so I don’t really know.
Did you set out to do a 16-20 each week, or was it just whatever you happened to buy?
I honestly set out to do 3 or 4 a week. But it becomes like a drug with a sense of satisfaction with the finished project. I bought toys that had a comic book bundled within just to own and scan the comic so that more people could share it and save it. I mailed away for variant covers and books no one had scanned before just to make sure they were “preserved.” I bought numerous books that I’ve never even read because I was committed to the idea of making sure they were “saved.”
What kind of time goes into an undertaking like this? Per book, per week, however you typically think about it.
Generally, it took me about 30 minutes to scan, edit, and release a book. If I was really focused and all the stars were aligned, I could knock one out in about 20 minutes.
I never had a chance to really do it at work because of the nature of my job (though I did try a time or two). But usually, as soon as I came home from the store, I would scan one book while reading another. I live in a town with several comic book stores and I work odd hours, so I would hit a store that had books out early, head home and cover those. Then see what still needed to be done and hit another one to pick up more books before going to work. Then finally, I’d hit one other store on Thursday to cover anything else it looked like wasn’t going to be covered. This also gave me a chance to talk to different store owners and different groups of customers.
Is this something you did independently, or were you a part of a group? I am fascinated by how the group dynamic works. Is there a set schedule for who scans what? Is there a pecking order? A concerted effort to make sure every book is covered? How many scanners would you say there are in a group at a given time? How does someone get accepted into the group?
Well, there’s a whole handbag right there. First off, I was in a couple of different groups. Some groups are set in maintaining an order of who scans what based on things like seniority or skill. Some groups don’t care and just band together to help each other out and share. At one time, there was a real effort to completely cover all comics that came out (and we succeeded a few times). But now, it seems like it’s more of a virtual pissing contest to see who can get out as many books as possible as quickly as possible. The groups often hurl insults and try to sabotage other groups. Most groups have 3-6 super dedicated scanners and editors who cover the majority of their “0-Day” releases, while various others drift in and out working on the periphery or on back issues. There’s a lot of ego involved in the “Scene” and new scanners often get chewed up and spit out. If they manage to stick around long enough, they move up when someone gets burnt out and quits.
Have you ever gotten comics you wouldn’t normally buy just to scan them in?
Hundred, if not thousands, as I mentioned earlier. Though, I often found myself enjoying many of them that I otherwise wouldn’t have tried.
How do you respond to critics who say scanning hurts the industry and the people who work in it?
Going around to different shops and talking to different collectors really made me feel like it only hurts the industry when the industry is hurting itself. One store regular lamented that comics come out every month because they come out every month. Not every month does a writer feel like they have a great story to tell. Instead, they have a deadline. When people feel that way, I think scanning does have an impact. Yet, even as a scanner I was also a collector. I read almost everything I could and often went to buy copies of books I read online because I decided I wanted to own a copy. Like anything else, I feel it can have pros and cons.
I also wanted to read my comics on my computer, laptop, ereader, phone, etc… Now that the companies are moving that way, I’m buying a lot of digital books legitimately and downloading less.
What kind of interactions have you had with creators, either at conventions or online? Have you ever discussed scanning with a writer or artist?
I have discussed the concept with a few creators at conventions, sure. Most of them seemed either unconcerned or ambivalent. A few were militant anti-piracy, but they were also higher up the ladder in the company and wore hats outside of creative. A few actually reached out to the scanner community and thanked us for sharing their work with more eyes. One company president said that piracy added to print sales. But of course, another said every download was a dollar stolen, so you have to take everything in stride.
DC, Image, and a number of other publishers have started offering day-and-date digital comics for sale. How did this affect your activity? Is it why you retired? What impact if any do you think it will have on the community?
As I said earlier, yeah, it’s a major part of why I quit. As for the community, there are a few Robin Hood types who vow to never surrender and a few anarchists who get off on the idea of “sticking it to the man.” For the most part however, scanners are print enthusiasts who see a digital release from the publishers as some sort of “DVD+Digital Copy” solution that just won’t catch on. It seems odd to me how many of them make a digital product, but feel like an official digital release is sub-par. In the end though, I think more scanners will drop off as official digital releases become more commonplace (a few notable ones already have). If more publishers would release comics in un-DRM’ed CBZ/CBR or EPub formats, scanning would all but cease.
Finally: do you feel like scanners (or file sharing in general) have been misrepresented in online debates about piracy? Do you want to set the record straight about anything?
Honestly, I don’t know that much about how they (we) have been represented. I know that some magazines like Wired or websites like Bleeding Cool tend to get 90% of the details wrong in anything I read, but I haven’t gone out of my way to read more than a handful of articles. I guess the one thing I can say is that most “pirates” (we call them leechers) tend to download everything they can because it’s available. If the entire system were to disappear tomorrow, they wouldn’t miss the majority of what they have downloaded because they wouldn’t have bought it in the first place if they even get around to reading it. They simply get it because they can and they often want to turn around and share it because they have it. Scanners, on the other hand, buy books they do like even if it’s already scanned and they have no intention of scanning it again because they are collectors at heart. I think there’s a serious level of fandom (or fanboy-ism if you prefer) in many of them.