Pirates vs Salarymen

British pop star Lily Allen, who rose to fame online, blogged against illegal filesharing, saying it damages emerging artists. Her post was soon taken down amid a storm of fan abuse. Still, it highlighted the ongoing problem facing most branches of the entertainment and information business, including comics and animation.

Every branch of the recorded entertainment industry, from novels to gaming, is being hit by illegal downloads. Many fans seem to see this as a basic human right, on the level of freedom of information. They’re wrong, but so far they’re winning.  The Internet turns copyright protection from a conventional war where the big, expensive weapons are all on the side of the producers to a guerilla combat where pirates sneak around corporate defences to take what they want.

Even apparently respectable companies are using America’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to legitimise their unauthorised use of others’ work. With manga, though, the majority of the pirates are buccaneering fans who see themselves as free-access freedom fighters. They buy a comic on the street in Japan, translate it, scan it, re-letter it and send it winging round the world in a matter of days, without worrying about the creators.

In a way, the attitude of these shock troops of the new media revolution to creators’ rights is like that of 21st-century girls to feminism – they simply don’t see its relevance to them. How we deal with that attitude, if we can deal with it, will define how creators are paid for their work in the future. And if creators aren’t paid for their work, we’re back in the bad old days of Siegel and Shuster .

Superman‘s creators fought for decades to get a tiny portion of the profits from the multi-million dollar franchise they originated. The difference is, they were dealing with The Man, the mighty DC Comics machine. The next generation of comics creators, novelists and artists is in more danger of being ripped off by The Fan.

English-language comics fandom has undergone a seismic shift. For many years, British and American comics were bought by preteen and teenage boys or college students from specialist dealers. The percentage with a lifelong comics habit was small, but loyal, and it helped to sustain the business for decades, providing a solid backbone of trade to support the flash-profit mob of teen titles. Most long-term fans collect as many series as they can afford, usually through a store or dealer. They never question that comics should be paid for – they see it as directly supporting artists and writers they admire. Their habits are the model on which most Western entertainment industries have relied for years.

Of course, many long-term comics fans were born before the wider availability of TV made entertainment free at the point of delivery. That began the process that is now changing every assumption about the economics of entertainment, just as the creation of the modern welfare state changed all our assumptions about personal and social responsibility.

The new breed of comics fan is a girl in her mid teens to twenties. She’s into manga, and reads a large number of comics every month, time permitting. Some of these new fans never venture into a comic shop or bookstore. Instead they search online for scanlations, unauthorised translations distributed by other fans. Many haven’t yet been licensed by Western publishers for the English-speaking market, but some are titles already on sale. The ‘dealers’ are contacted through links that can shift or go down in seconds and online identities hidden in the layers of the Web.

Lily Allen’s blog about the unfairness of others exploiting the medium where she found fame to steal her work sounds reasonable (if ingenuous) to me, but not to these fans. I can talk about the creators who made the work, who never authorised its translation and who get no return from the extra readership. They say that the creators have already been paid by the Japanese industry, and that the extra exposure will surely create a demand for overseas editions and help them sell new titles. The economics of the adult world don’t interest such fans. They only have to flick a switch to access free multi-channel entertainment. People on TV and radio get paid without their intervention. Why should other forms of entertainment be any different?

Traditional fans are willing to pay for the pleasure of handling new comics, turning pages, smelling ink and paper.  For many newer fans, the comic as object is almost irrelevant.  Besides, on a schoolgirl’s pocket money or a student income, they could never afford to buy all the manga they want in printed form. This isn’t Japan, where a fat forty-story anthology can be had for the price of a sandwich or picked up on the street a week later for free, dumped with the recycling. Some might be willing to pay a small fee for downloads, but so far, with ebook prices not far below print and plenty of material freely available, most are not tempted. In Japan, cellphone downloads are a cheap way to read manga, but this hasn’t yet caught on in the West.

It isn’t just comics that are affected by the near-universal accessibility of Internet-based material. All kinds of art are freely traded on the Internet, with or without creator consent. Images are converted into embroidery charts, scrapbook paper or screensavers, and sold by people with no rights in them. Many texts are subject to the theft-by-stealth of unauthorised posting. We’re not talking inspiration, research or homage, but the kind of outright stealing that annoyed Lily Allen.

The idea of the Internet as a ‘legitimate’ way of getting books and comics for nothing has virtually been written into the Bill of Rights by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.  “Free access to information” sounds appealing, even Utopian, but your right to be asked for consent before someone else uses your property shouldn’t be in dispute. The US Department of Justice is currently blocking Google’s plan to create a vast online library of works assumed to be copyright-free unless the author opts out, but variations on the same scheme are active and proliferating. Earlier this year, writer Christopher Priest warned fellow members of the Society of Authors about US website Scribd, where content can be ‘published’ by anyone, with no checks on ownership. Among thousands of ‘free’ works I found the manga-drawing manuals from Graphic-sha, ‘published’ by a series of pseudonyms apparently unrelated to the company or their licensees.

The Internet has made the work of artists and writers accessible to a wider audience than ever before. It’s made it possible for anyone to disseminate their ideas and find their niche. Internet distribution has a lot to offer the planet in terms of reduced environmental impact and speed of delivery. Of course it also means loss of jobs, in production, distribution, retail. There are losers in every revolution. Increasingly, it also means loss of control and income for artists and writers. If a whole generation gets into the habit of reading for free and only making the occasional purchase, how can creators survive?

4 thoughts on “Pirates vs Salarymen

  1. Interestingly enough, staff from Vertical and Del Ray commented at NYAF this weekend that manga sales, while declining due to the recession, are still quite strong because of that paper and ink smell and the tactile nature of a book. I will confess to reading Western comic scans (the issue based system is outdated and unsustainable at $4 for 24 pages) but for manga, novels, etc. I find that even on a nice LCD I still get tremendous eyestrain from the high contrast of manga or a novel and gladly reach for a proper dead tree copy every time.

    I just wish that our libraries did a better job of stocking these things. My last US library system had tonnes of complete manga series at every branch, whereas I’m lucky to find more than two volumes of anything in London (though I *can* get the complete Preacher.)

    As far as video goes, it’s absolutely an uphill battle. Streaming has yet to fully monetise itself, especially in the UK where advertising is less centralised (an impediment to ANN opening UK streaming, for example) and there are questions of whether or not anybody wants to handle the risks associated with streaming full length videos that aren’t certified by the BBFC.

    • I agree that libraries could do more – but most UK libraries have seen their budgets decline, and are also expected to stock other media as well as books. But as a writer, I worry that those sales come from a relatively small base. There are plenty of people of my generation and the next who are as addicted to the smell of ink and paper as I am, but it isn’t the under-25s drug of choice, and I’d like them to be part of my future readership. To judge from this rather nice fan review of 500 Essential Anime, big colour pictures may be one way to their hearts – but they’re very expensive and not always easy to source.

      The two types of fan I talked about are summed up by the two friends who triggered this piece (along with Ms Allen, whose hands are not entirely clean of illegal sampling if the popular press is to be believed.) One is the 15-year-old daughter of an old friend who reads about 40-50 manga a month online, and the other is a fiftysomething comics fan who buys about 20 superhero mags every month. I very much hope he’ll still be doing the same thing in 20 years – but if she is, then the industry has a problem unless we can find a new way to make money from her reading habits.

  2. I think it’s a decent article that skirts sensationalism, but you do ignore one salient, high profile issue: that file sharing is not equivalent to a commensurate loss of sales.

    Equally, I don’t think it’s fair to lump scanlation groups, who provide non-profit access to media that is unavailable in a country, in with profiteering and fraud.

    Ultimately it is a complex issue and the conclusions anyone is likely to draw will vary based on their outlook of the consumer and society as a whole.

    Your premise is that access to free media will cause an audience to turn their backs on rewarding artists. It is not one I agree with. Some individuals are, I am sure, happy to exploit others if presented to do so with no consequence, but I don’t for a moment believe that is the majority.

    I think that it basically calls for a shift from regarding art as a product or commodity to a dialogue with an audience. Good creative work will not be valued the same as poor, based solely upon the paper it is printed on. The attention will be on the experience, the rewards based on audience that become involved in the creative process, via blogs and websites that can operate on a stable subscription model, through added value from supporting products, through greater attention and care when producing physical artifacts.

    In other words, creators need to get their work out there, engage people and let them become patrons and reward them as such. Cultivating communities this way will lead to greater artistic freedom, more creative control and better work. I think it will lead to more artists; even if many of us will have to take other part-time jobs, I’d welcome it gladly.

    It’s a shift from a top down to a bottom up business model, is all.

    • Not quite. If someone has created something, they have a right to decide who sees it and whether or not they pay for it. Scanlation and filesharing, however well-intentioned, take that right away from the creator of the work, and give him or her nothing in return. How’d you like to turn up at the office or store, put in a day’s work then let your boss and clients decide whether to pay you, and how much?

      Your model assumes that an artist is happy to let an audience see their work and then decide whether or not it’s worth paying for – like a busker. If the artist is happy, and offers his own work that way, fine. If somebody else takes the artist’s work without permission, it’s still stealing.

      Creative Commons licences and other artist-driven initiatives give artists the option of allowing their work to be circulated in that way. The artist remains in control.

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