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Recap and Rethinking

It’s always strange being in the Baltimore Convention Center for anything that isn’t Otakon. It’s like walking through a house you grew up in, but is now owned by a different family. It’s all old hat and yet so very different. Baltimore Comic Con proved that different is good.

I went to BCC several years ago when I was still in the early years of Comedity. It convinced me that the comic-con crowd just wasn’t a good match with my work. And so I stuck to anime cons for years. Now that I’m doing a pretty solidly “standard” format comic (complete with books) and upon the advice of some good friends and peers, I figured I’d give the comic-con scene another go.

I have never been to a more professional, friendlier, or smoother-run event in my life.

From load-in to packing up, the staff were helpful and informative, the convention center staff who usually haven’t clue one what’s happening or give a damn were equally helpful. People I had never met before in my life said good morning to me and asked how I was. Not just fans either. I had a blast, a great time, and came home pumped to work, never surer of myself or what I was doing with my life. I am officially putting EVERY OTHER CONVENTION OUT THERE ON NOTICE: figure out what Baltimore Comic Con is doing right, and follow suite.

However, as awesome as the con was, apparently there was a bit of a scuffle at the Harvey Awards (which I did not attend). The short of it is that comic creators Mark Waid and Sergio Aragones got into a heated discussion immediately following Mark Waid’s speech about copyrights and the internet. The short of it something along the lines of “kids are sharing scans of comic books. Instead of trying to keep a hard and fast hold on distribution, we should figure out a way to make money off of digital (free) distribution.” Just google “harvey awards” and you’ll find a bunch of opinions and reviews of exactly what was said. However, here you can find a pretty good summary and even better discussion of the issue in the comments. I actually really recommend reading the comments here, for once.

It is an interesting debate, and even more interesting to see how people feel it’s impossible to make money on a product that is given away. “There no money in digital distribution,” seems to be a common theme among many. Which is stupid. Plenty of webcomics have proven you can do it. It is, granted, rare that a webcomic becomes so successful as a fount of money that one can retire to the Bahamas, but it is doable. I wish I could give you a secret key to success, but I don’t know what it is. I suspect it has to do with the realization that one doesn’t make money on the content (comic). There is no money in online content, but it is an excellent mechanism for attracting an audience and playing the age old game of merchandising. But even that is only half the truth. The truth is, that people will pay money for online content, even the content they get for free (I’m looking at all you wonderful people who donate to your favorite webcomics or buy their books). They just won’t buy it sight unseen.

I’m reading a book right now called The Four Hour Work Week which, regardless of content, is the most compellingly written self-help book I’ve ever encountered. In it, it mentions the way to sell puppies (this makes perfect sense in context). The way to guarantee a puppy sale is not to tell the customer how awesome the puppy is, but rather to let the customer take the puppy home and tell them that if it doesn’t work out they can always return the puppy. Once they have the puppy home, you can pretty well guarantee that they won’t be able to bring themselves to return the pup. They’ve already become attached to him. Who could return something so cute! Look at those big brown eyes!

The same is oddly true of comics. Let a man read the first issue of an awesome comic, and he’ll pay you for the rest. Hell, webcomics have shown that if a reader likes a comic enough he’ll pay to have his own copy of something everyone can get for free. Also their favorite comic artist also sells that pretty swanky t-shirt…. oh and has arts to hang on your wall… oh my… and plushies!!! EEEEE!!! *fangasm*

One can, of course, argue that it’s not fair that creators aren’t compensated for all the hard work they put into actually creating their works, that it’s unfair that they must work to create a comic to draw an audience and then harder still to make merch to make a living. Well… then donate to your favorite creator. I’m sure they’ll happily take your money. I’m sure they could use it. And in an ideal world, all readers would contribute financially to the creators who provide them with hours of entertainment at no actual charge. Maybe one day, we’ll live in that world. Maybe one day we’ll all be able to do whatever it is that we yearn to do without having to worry about whether or not it’ll pay the bills and keep us fed and clothed. That’ll be a mighty fine day. But for now, I think that whatever the answer is, it involves seriously re-thinking this concept of being paid for ideas.

I run a panel on copyrights at a lot of the conventions I go to. And one of the things that I have to stress is that copyrights do not protect ideas. That’s not a copyright’s job. Copyrights protect tangibly recorded instances of ideas. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, look it up. I have an idea for a story. I write down the story. That story is protected by copyright. But if someone else were to go and write a story that was the same in essence but not the same in detail (wording, characters, style, etc etc) they’re allowed. I can go create a comic about a billionaire playboy who witnesses his parents being tragically murdered and uses his billions to fight crime to sate some fucked up psychological need for justice. DC comics can’t stop me from re-inventing Batman, so long as my story isn’t so similar as to be mistaken for theirs. My story and my art are mine. Their stories and their art are theirs. The idea is free to everyone. That’s what copyright is. Copyright exists to protect works, not ideas. Copyright is there to keep me from taking Batman verbatim and passing it off as my own. That is theft, plain and simple, and I don’t think anyone is seriously advocating the total abolishment of copyright. The stories you write, the art that you draw is still yours, and just because it gets passed around the internet doesn’t make it any less yours (yes, I know that distribution without consent violates copyright). Countless forum threads exist of people trying to find out where they can find more of artist X’s work, based on a random image they found somewhere else.

This debate could go on forever. I think that anyone who picks a “side” on this one is a fool. There are no sides here. It’s not a question of “give it away” or “lock it down.” It’s a question of “in a world where ideas are free for everyone, how does one make a living?”

28 Responses to “Recap and Rethinking”

  1. Lyle says:

    I couldn’t agree more on the “there’s no sides” part of the conversation, with one caveat: I think the question isn’t “in a world where ideas are free for everyone, how does one make a living?”, the question is “In a world where locking down distribution of digital content is impossible, how does one make a living?” Because we’re there. The law has been completely inadequate in stemming the tide of “illegal” digital distribution. So have content protection systems. The fact of the matter is, if you can play it or read it, it doesn’t matter what it’s encoded with, a hacker can crack it in a week and upload it to bittorrent. After that, you can sue, scream, cry, whine or go on a jyhad against your fans, it won’t matter. If someone is so inclined, they can get a digital copy of anything for free.

    It does suck that the creators of digital content aren’t compensated directly for their work. Unfair, even. But to make a heartless observation, the open market doesn’t care about fair.

    And for once, I’m going to post this instead of deciding after the fact that posting comments on the internet is pointless at best and pernicious at worst. :) *braces for flames*

  2. Kaotik4266 says:

    I mostly agree with you, except for the bit about theft. Theft of the idea would deprive DC of the ability to use Batman. Copying verbatim like you describe is illegal and immoral, sure, but it’s not theft (much as the recording and film industries would like to convince people otherwise!).

    Other than that, thanks for the interesting discussion! :)

  3. Garth says:

    @Kaotik4266 See, that’s really interesting that you think that. Because, copying something verbatim and passing it off as your own for fun and profit IS theft. It’s why teachers berate their students for not properly quoting people in their papers. Because they have stolen someone else’s words in the guise of their own. By not properly quoting, you deprive the original writer the credit due, you take the credit for someone else’s work.

    Similarly, by copying a movie, song, comic, book and giving it to someone else you deprive the creators a potential sale and subsequent income from said second person purchasing their own copy. That is tantamount to theft. The RIAA and MPAA are sadly right on that point. Doesn’t mean that SHARING is illegal or theft, but of course that is the crux of the argument. What is the line between sharing and stealing? You can lend your buddy a DVD to watch. But if you give him a ripped copy to keep it’s wrong. More importantly, does it matter? Is ripping the new sharing? Will people buy their own copy even if they can get a copy just as good (if not better without all the fucking commercials and shit) from their buddy?

    Ideas, conversely, can’t be stolen, only shared. I can take the idea of batman and do batman art and sell said batman art. But I can’t stop DC from doing it. My using of Batman in my own projects doesn’t prevent DC from using the idea of batman in theirs. It is immoral and in some cases unlawful to take another person’s idea and use it without their consent, or at least attributing the original idea to them. But you can’t steal an idea. You can’t prevent someone from having the same idea as you or using your idea as a springboard for new and different ideas and things.

    THINGS can be stolen. IDEAS can only be shared.

  4. Will says:

    Actually, Kaotik is right. Copyright Infringement is NOT Theft. It’s Copyright Infringement. If it were Theft then you wouldn’t need to call it Copyright Infringement.

    In English Law (the basis for the law in Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries) Theft is defined as – “A person is guilty of theft, if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it”.

    ‘permanently depriving the other of it’ is a key part of Theft, if the person taking the property does not deprive the other of said property, such as in the case of Copyright Infringement, it’s not Theft.

    This caused a number of legal issues in the 80′s if i remember correctly, with the US Supreme Court deciding that Copyright Infringement was -not- Theft in 1985. See the following link;

    Yes, Copyright Infringement is a crime, yes it should ideally be punished as a crime (practical considerations make it infeasible to do so in most digital cases), but it is -not- Theft. The RIAA and MPAA can say whatever they like, in the USA, the Supreme Court decided twenty five years ago that Copyright Infringement is not Theft.

  5. Kaotik4266 says:


    “copying something verbatim and passing it off as your own for fun and profit IS theft”

    As Will said, not in a legal sense in at least most countries.

    “It’s why teachers berate their students for not properly quoting people in their papers. Because they have stolen someone else’s words in the guise of their own.”

    I would argue that it’s more because the student hasn’t put in the work to understand the topic. Copying a source means they don’t have to work to understand what they’re writing about, reducing the effectiveness of the exercise which is to learn about the topic.

    “Similarly, by copying a movie, song, comic, book and giving it to someone else you deprive the creators a potential sale and subsequent income from said second person purchasing their own copy.”

    This is true to a degree, however if someone downloads something illegally for free, there’s not overly good odds that they would have paid money for it (despite how fond of the “every download equates to a lost sale” mantra the record and film industries are). There was actually a fairly recent study into the effect of illegal file sharing on music sales (one of the few not actually sponsored by the recording industry and which I can’t for the life of me find a link to right now, unfortunately) which found that only something like 1% of illegal downloads leads to a lost sale. While I couldn’t find a link to that one, I did, however, find an article about a similar study from 2004:

    Also, by this logic, the entire second-hand market is theft because, by not purchasing from the original creator, “you deprive the creators a potential sale and subsequent income from said second person purchasing their own copy.” As an aside, some video game studios are trying to make this a reality…

    “You can lend your buddy a DVD to watch. But if you give him a ripped copy to keep it’s wrong. More importantly, does it matter? Is ripping the new sharing? Will people buy their own copy even if they can get a copy just as good (if not better without all the fucking commercials and shit) from their buddy?”

    If I may quote you? “Hell, webcomics have shown that if a reader likes a comic enough he’ll pay to have his own copy of something everyone can get for free.”

    More seriously, it does seem to be heading that way. There’s actually strong evidence to show that, by being able to access media at minimal risk (if they download a CD/movie/comic etc. and don’t enjoy it, they haven’t lost anything except time and a bit of download quota), a significant proportion file sharers expose themselves to a wider range of media, become fans and go on to become legal purchasers of their products, thus actually creating sales that otherwise would not have happened, especially for lesser known content and creators. People are also more likely to give new things a chance if the recommendation comes from a friend, as in your example. Granted there are legal alternatives for this but none of them currently match up to the vast quantities of media available on file sharing networks.

    (Also, out of curiosity, do you mean “wrong” legally or “wrong” according to your opinions?)

    “But you can’t steal an idea… THINGS can be stolen. IDEAS can only be shared.”

    I’m curious as to how you equate this with “copying something verbatim and passing it off as your own for fun and profit IS theft” and “copying a movie… is tantamount to theft” which seem to contradict this, given that movies, music, research papers, comics and so on are, basically, “ideas”. That’s why they’re intellectual property rather than physical property. This is something the record/film/comic etc. industries seem to have trouble grasping (in general. There are exceptions, especially in the smaller indie-type labels/studios/publishers etc.). I read an interesting article a while ago which suggested that this is because they’ve never realised that what they’ve actually been selling all along is the container, not the content. The containers were difficult and expensive to duplicate en masse so rates of piracy were relatively low. This worked great as a business model until the internet came along and suddenly everyone could distribute media to everyone else at little to no cost. The incumbents couldn’t cope with this, so in stead of accepting that times have changed and responding accordingly they’ve spent the past few decades using their substantial government lobbying power to push for stronger copyright laws to prop up their failing monopoly. As I mentioned, however, there are exceptions in the form of smaller indie companies who are experimenting with new, interesting and, frequently, quite successful business models for allowing artists, be they musical, graphic, film or otherwise, to make money in an environment where what they have traditionally produced can be replicated infinitely at next to no cost.

    …That whole thing really sounds like I’m trying to be argumentative and trollish and it’s certainly run a LOT longer than I intended! If it sounds the same to you, I apologise. The issue of intellectual property is something I feel strongly about and I’m just trying to understand and discuss your opinion which is especially interesting to me given that you’re a content producer yourself! :)

    It’s getting late and I feel like I’ve drifted from my point into more general comments about copyright a lot in a whole bunch of places but I hope I’ve been clear (or at least translucent!) and provided an interesting response to your points.

  6. Kaotik4266 says:

    Um… wow… I didn’t realise it was quite THAT long! It’s hard to tell from the little comment box! XD

  7. Garth says:

    @ Will and Kaotik Interesting to note. Thank you for the info. Though while “theft” and “copyright infringement” are legally distinct (and I can understand why), I feel that taking someone else’s work without permission and calling it your own is still stealing, even if we call it something else.

    Note the calling it your own part. That’s the big difference between plagiarism and file sharing. In once instance you usurp credit and in the other you just duplicate, or share, or something. I think everyone agrees that plagiarism is a bad thing. It’s when an IP is taken without permission but no attempt to discredit the author is made that opinions on right or wrong get heated.

    As to the THINGS vs IDEAS, lemme try to explain more clearly. Because you’re not being sold packaging when you buy a DVD or CD or book. You’re being sold concrete experiences, individual interpretations of ideas. I’ll stick with batman, because he’s fun.

    The following is an idea: a billionaire uses his vast fortune to build marvelous gadgets to help him fight crime as a vigilante.

    The following are things that are instances/incarnations of that idea: The Shadow radio drama, Tim Burton’s Batman, Batman Begins, and many many others.

    All three of these have the same basic idea fueling them. However, they are each unique and different from each other. Batman is not the Shadow, no matter how similar they may be. Batman Beings is not a copy of the original Batman movie. It is a remix, a retelling, a unique property that uses the same ideas that led to the creation of the first film.

    The idea is free to anyone, and cannot be contained or constrained. It’s too vague, too open to interpretation. It’s only when you distill a thought down into concrete instances that it can be “owned” or “stolen.” I can take Tim Burton’s Batman, copy it, and re-release it as “my” movie, and be guilty of copyright violation, fraud, and being a bad person. However, if I were to take the concepts that make batman/the shadow/the green hornet/the phantom awesome and make my own superhero movie, I am free to do so and no one can stop me. Utility belts and everything.

    It’s instances of ideas that can both be protected by copyright, and subsequently violated by copying/distributing without permission of the copyright holder. The raw idea itself can’t be protected and can’t be stolen.

    Maybe a metaphor. Let’s say that Ideas are like the Earth. The Earth is there for everyone. You can’t deny people access to the Earth. It’s not possible. However, you can define specific borders that make up “your” earth, call it property, and that specific bit of rigidly defined Earth is yours and only yours and no one else can be on it without your consent.

    I hope that clarifies things a bit. Maybe not, it’s a fuzzy subject and it’s very late, and I am tired.

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