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San Diego Comic-Con 2010
Comics and Digital Piracy

by Gia Manry,

Comics critic and Techland writer Douglas Wolk moderated a panel featuring Comixology CEO David Steinberger, manga editor and creator Jake Forbes, and manga.about.com's Deb Aoki, to discuss the past, present, and future of comics piracy.

Wolks opened with what he called a "rant" while he talked about his experience writing about the music industry, which also went through a period of poor PR and alienation of fans over piracy. The music industry spent over US$64 million in legal fees over piracy and got back only US$1.4 million, although those lawsuits were intended as a deterrent, not a way to get back funds. Wolks shifted back into comics, talking about how many fans want their comics digitally the same day it comes out, and how they get it-- but not always legitimately.

Forbes suggested that comic publishers have been slow to realize that comics work more like Pandora or Netflix-- a lot of content but not perhaps as much loyalty to individual titles. Forbes thinks that the ability to have content channels where you don't need to know what specifically you want is important.

Next, Aoki discussed the fact that legal manga sites have only a handful of manga titles available in comparison to illegal manga aggregator sites, which have hundreds. Aoki agreed that many fans just want to be able to browse titles. Aoki also noted that most comic artists aren't like Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto, who might be able to depend in part on money from merchandising-- or like music artists, who have concert tickets and other merchandise to fall back on. Most comic artists, by contrast, depend only on the sale of the work itself.

Steinberger suggested that it was hard for publishers to move fast enough and thought that Pandora was a passive experience where comics are currently a more active experience. He feels that it really takes a lot of time but that the next year will show "a ton of movement." The challenges are largely discoverability, sharing, and creating a better digital experience.

Wolk brought up the volunteers who scan comics specifically to preserve them because American comics go out of print and disappear from stores very quickly. Aoki noted that scanlations also came out of a love for the medium, people who wanted to share manga when it was hard to find. Forbes agreed and brought up the similar history of fansubs, which eventually allowed the development of sites like Crunchyroll, that legitimately stream anime titles. Forbes contrasted this from the aggregator sites, who do not do the work of scanlating but still make money off of them. Forbes also noted that these sites present the manga as legally available and many people don't realize it's illegal.

Aoki brought up that the recent closure of some scanlation sites has led some fans to complain about "greedy publishers," but that these same fans don't seem concerned about the scanlation aggregators making money from the unpaid scanlators' work.

Steinberger moved on to address some American comics' digital distribution and Comixology's deals with publishers, who are experimenting with price points and what sells. He noted that Comixology's iPhone/iPad app are not "Wednesday buyers" or standard comics fans, but a mainstream audience, and that the top titles are usually the movie-related ones like Wanted and Hellboy. Steinberger feels that you can't stop people from sharing illegally, that all you can do is to build a legal channel.

Aoki agreed that even if you shut down the top ten scanlation sites on the Internet today, new sites would spring up, but that aggregator sites make it "too easy" to find the sites. Forbes brought up that scanlations bypass all of the red tape of foreign licensing, and asked Steinberger how he felt from the perspective of someone who's not working with that already. Steinberger noted that he was also already working with a manga publisher, but that the publisher refused to work with him on anything in the Java programming language-- they would only work with one other company for Java. Steinberger also noted that 41% of their sales were outside of the US.

Aoki then noted that Yen Press's digital Yen Plus magazine will not be region-locked, by contrast with Viz Media's U.S.-only digital releases of Rumiko Takahashi's RIN-NE. Steinberger said he thinks that the creator-owned houses will be able to move forward faster than the larger publishers.

Wolk requested that the panelists explain what scanlations are for the audience, who may not be familiar with the term, and Forbes complied. Wolks asked Steinberger if he knew how many people downloaded American comics, but Steinberger had no figures to offer; he then suggested that there were fans who downloaded more to collect than to read, and he noted that there was no way to say how many of those downloads are truly a lost sale. Aoki added that both Ed Chavez at Vertical and Kurt Hassler at Yen Press reported seeing an increase in sales when they requested the removal of their companies' manga titles from scanlation sites.

Forbes added that a lot of manga's audience were kids and teenagers who didn't have access to credit cards or had small allowances but who were being marketed at and engaged in, and Steinberger agreed that there was an argument for building a franchise via free content, but noted that a true hit in this form is rare. Aoki added that some fans justify scanlations as "sampling" despite reading hundreds of chapters of longer series, and Steinberger pointed out that some fans become very self-righteous.

Some fans may not like purchasing "access" rather than a physical item, noted Wolks, but that immediate access does have value for others. Aoki brought up an unnamed digital manga publisher that went under and its subscribers lost everything that they had purchased. Wolk directed the topic to Steinberger, whose comics company is all digital. Steinberger said that he is a businessman and that he was able to get deals with both Marvel and DC, which many people thought would be impossible.

Steinberger brought up that comics fans have to know how to download comics because they tend to come out in specialty formats, .CBR and .CBZ, which require certain readers. Wolk and Steinberger discussed the recent switch from proprietary or protected file formats into open file formats (e.g. from iTunes format to mp3 and others). Steinberger feels that this will happen in comics as well, and that the focus really should be on making a great experience for consumers, especially those unfamiliar with .CBR and .CBZ.

Wolks opened the panel up to Q&A, which launched with a fan suggesting that scanlations provide "free market research" and that Hetalia, a title mentioned by Aoki earlier, would not have been picked up at all had it not been for scanlation. Forbes wondered why a fan translator would know better than a translator or editor who has access to the Japanese publisher and original creator. He noted that manga is a business, they are not looking to exploit fans but they do need to make money to continue production. Forbes concluded that it was unfair to assume that publishers in the U.S. wouldn't be able to continue without the "help" from scanlations.

Aoki added that once the scanlations are out, they can't be taken back out, and no one ever needs to buy the book. Aoki also noted that some scanlation aggregators won't take down scanlations even at the request of the scanlators, who in the past had been more "honorable" about taking down scanlations upon a book's license. Forbes agreed with the fan that it was a shame that the process of licensing a manga takes so long and hopes that the international licensing process will improve in the future, at which time scanlations could perhaps disappear. Aoki pointed out the manga RIN-NE, which was simultaneously released online in the U.S. and in print in Japan and that the editor was having to work a seven-day week to get it out, and that it isn't possible to do professional-quality translations for free.

The next question came from a fan asking whether it would be possible for the fans to do something with the publishers legitimately, and Aoki and Forbes brought up their OpenManga. Forbes added that Tokyopop and DMP have also talked about the possibility of working with scanlators, which Forbes feels it's a possibility.

A manga collector asked about the idea that scanlations are more accurate than professional translations, which are sometimes more heavily localized. Aoki noted that this was becoming less and less common, although it does happen with some titles, so it was unfair to trot out Conan and Initial D, which operated under different rules.

A fan of Comixology asked about the slowing down of some issues to get people out to comic shops on Wednesday and asked when the market will force publishers' hand. Steinberger said he thinks their hands are being forced already but that some publishers still have some resistance, and that it will take years. Steinberger says that Comixology is also sometimes the bottleneck and that publishers would love to have more titles out but that the company can only do so many so quickly.

The final question came from an attendee who asked about setting prices, feeling that it has cut down on the piracy a lot: US$4 for 30 pages sees unreasonable, which is why he buys trade paperbacks. The fan suggested that US$1 per issue might cut down on piracy a lot, and asked what a reasonable price is. Steinberger said it was whatever price the largest number of people will pay for it, but that many titles have free chapters on Comixology.

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