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Who Wants to Read Comics on a Computer?

However modest in scope, comiXology's new downloads signals the beginning of the end for strict DRM in digital comics -- and it will change how we view comics.

In July, as part of the company's panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego, comiXology's CEO, David Steinberg, introduced "My Backups" a service that allows users to download Digital Rights Management (DRM)-free copies of certain books purchased through the comiXology storefront. Participating publishers include Image, Top Shelf and Monkeybrain. Further, independent artists and publishers who use "comiXology Submit" also have the option of offering copies via "My Backups". Readers can see which books they have available for download from their "My Books" page at the service's website.

This announcement is significant if for no other reason than comiXology's dominance as a point of purchase and platform for reading digital comics. Particularly given the inclusion of Image, "My Backups" likely unlocked millions of previously DRM-bound books. However, the company is not taking a leading position on the DRM question. Notably, both Top Shelf and Image were already offering downloadable copies of books via their own online storefronts. It's also important to note what you are, and are not, able to do with your downloaded books.

"My Backups" is aptly named in the sense that the function offers just that: a copy of a comic as a PDF or CBZ file that is primarily useful to store on your local drive and via whatever cloud service you might use. You can't open these files in comiXology or with one of the company's apps. In theory, you could now share your books with friends and family, but in practice I can't think of many circumstances where I would do so; very few people want to scroll through a comic on a computer monitor (and in any event, "over sharing" is kept in check by digital watermarking meant to control piratic uses of the files, see Ian Paul, "Comixology goes DRM-free on selected comics," TechHive, 25 July 2014). What comiXology is now offering users is greater rights of ownership, but not in any form that puts the company's business model at risk, which, is, of course, perfectly reasonable.

The truth is, I was buying most of my digital comics published by Top Shelf and Image via comiXology even though I could have been getting DRM-free copies direct from the publishers. The convenience of having all of my books in one place and the superior reading experience afforded by the comiXology app trumped whatever reservations I have about DRM and desires I have to "own" my comics.

To be even more honest, if I could also buy Dark Horse books and the creator-owned and sold titles I get digitally directly from the publishers via comiXology instead, I almost certainly would. When it comes to buying and reading digital comics, among the last things I want to deal with is a proliferation of platforms for buying and reading or a simple shifting of storage problems from bookshelves and boxes in my house to files on my computer.

I currently have 188 titles available for backup. Of those, so far, I have downloaded 13, and there are may be ten books I have in mind to download in the near future. Most of these titles I will likely never choose to back up. (For more on this, see my February column, "Digital Comics and the Return of Disposability"). I suspect that I'm with the majority of comiXology users in these choices, although I think that it's also fair to suggest that not everyone will choose to download the same kinds of books.

Some people may want to have their full run of The Waking Dead backed up, while others may want all of the titles from a favorite publisher. In my case, my downloading has focused on longer form and single-authored works (so, basically, all of my Top Shelf books plus a few others). In this sense at least, choice still matters, both in terms of having the option to download in the first place and also a range of titles for selection.

Not unexpectedly, neither Marvel nor DC is included in the list of publishers with titles available for back up. As above, for most books, I doubt that I would take advantage of the feature when it comes to the Marvel titles I'm reading with comiXology (I am not currently reading any DC, digitally or in print). That being noted, philosophically, I would like to see not only the two major North American comics publishers as part of "My Backups". but all titles from all sources available for download after purchase.

My central problem with DRM, in whatever cultural production it is used, is that it's employed to give owners of creative works, and especially corporate rights holders, control over reading/ viewing/ listening/ enjoying/ sharing that exceeds what those same owners would have over analog works.

A few years ago, I began passing comics onto my mom. I started with the kinds of books you often see recommended for "non-comics readers", like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Pantheon, 2004), but now she also looks forward to titles like Fables, when I pick up a new trade, and Hawkeye, which I have been loaning in sets of six ever since introducing her to the book with #11 (the "Pizza Dog" issue).

In print, this is perfectly legal and part of routine sociability. People want to share what they love. For decades and, in some cases, centuries, people everywhere have circulated stories, songs, books, recordings, etc. in analog form. With the commodification of creative expression came a struggle over ownership and control, but it's only in the contemporary digital realm where rights holders have been able to make simple sharing difficult and even illegal.

When I buy a print copy of a comic, there are a number of things I can do with that copy beyond simply reading it myself. I can, as noted, loan it to someone else. I can give it away or even sell it. I may not have to buy the comic in the first place; in many cases I could check the book out from the library to do my reading. With print there's a clear distinction between owning a copy of a work and owning the work itself. I can do what I want with an individual copy that I come to possess by legal means, but what I can't do is start making copies of my own for sale or to give away; that right adheres to the owner of the underlying work.

In the main, and up until the announcement of "My Backups", when I buy a digital copy of comic via a service like comiXology the only right I'm buying is the right to read. DRM prevents any other uses for that copy.

I'm sure that Marvel would prefer that my mom buy her own copies of Hawkeye, but I think we can all agree that that's not going to happen, and with print copies of the title, decades of legal practice and social norms are supportive of her borrowing from me. Both Marvel and the comics industry still benefit from my mom borrowing my comics. She generally doesn't buy comics for herself, but she does buy comics as gifts for others. What comics she does own are books that I have picked up for her.

The more she reads, the wider her tastes, and the greater the range of books that I will consider buying for her and that she is likely to purchase for others. This doesn't translate to direct sales for Hawkeye, but it does play role in building the market for comics more generally. However indirectly, that benefits Marvel and other publishers.

Individuals who pirate digital works tend to do so because of the lack of available alternatives, and not simply to avoid paying for something. Allowing people to legally download their comics should have a positive effect on the problem of illegal downloads of books. There will always be some percentage of readers who think that "information should be free" in the "free beer" sense, but it's well-established at this point that pirating primarily happens because of lack of access to a product and not for its own sake.

To the extent that individuals currently break DRM so that they can own their books, what comiXiology is starting to do with "My Backups" can be seen as a lowering of barriers to what those individuals want, which is to have access to copies of their books independent of the service.

Of course, that still leaves the other possible uses of one's personal copy of a book. As previously noted, I don't see much appeal to reading comics as a regular text document on a computer screen. If I think ahead to sharing a book, I look for a print copy. However, to the extent that comiXology has incorporated anti-piracy technologies into its downloads, the company is clearly concerned that making digital copies available to readers will invite circulation beyond what seems reasonable from possession of a single copy.

It seems inevitable that additional publishers will opt to allow reader downloads of their books on comiXology. For me, then, a more interesting prospect is the possibility of sharing or lending within comiXology. Notably, Amazon, the current parent company to comiXology, offers a lending service for the Kindle and Kindle app. As a technical matter, this would be separate from what is currently possible with "My Backups" and would likely entail modification, rather than removal, of DRM, but it's in the same spirit as allowing DRM-free downloads of books. Both give readers more freedom of use over their digital books.

Doing both would also add value to an individual's use of comiXology, which, from a business perspective, is likely the most persuasive argument for doing away with or diminishing the scope of DRM. Whatever the next stage of evolution in digital comics, DRM as we have know it, seems destined to be discarded and "My Backups" is part of the beginning of that end.

* * *

Image: Cartoon funny boy and computer from Shutterstock.com.

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