The Theory of Webcomics: Could DRM Kill Your Webcomic?
The idea that the march of technology is too slow and could kill a baby art form is nothing new. Scott Kurtz wrote “Could Success Kill Your Webcomic?” in 2002, as he was then concerned with the increasing cost of bandwidth that came with an influx of readers. Fortunately, in the last six years, technological growth outpaced his concerns, but things were a bit dicey for some popular webcomics for a little while there.
Webcomics are taking the market share from print comics, particularly indie ones (though I wouldn’t be surprised if the general correlation between the advent of the web and decreasing sales of major companies’ print comics turned out to be a causation). When it comes to attracting new readers, a free product available on the web and updated daily (or several times weekly) is far more enticing to cash-strapped kids than a $3 22-page pamphlet that requires leaving the house to acquire and only advances the story once a month.
On a similar note, I’m of the strong opinion that when a company is able to produce and market a color ebook reader at the right screen size and the right price-point, it will kill the pamphlet comic book and hugely broaden the market for webcomics. Once the reading experience is equivalent, the decreased effort of ebooks can win the market for them. Why buy when you can download? If you want a physical copy, wait a few months and buy the trade paperback.
Obviously, the solution for the big companies is to appeal to those new readers by directly competing with webcomics and taking their advantages for yourself, while keeping your original advantages (professionalism, well-known brands, and the like). Of course, there are problems with translating print-sized comics to screens: Virtually no-one’s monitors can fully display ten-by-seven inches in portrait format with enough magnification to make it readable without destroying your eyes. Which means you either expand the image and have to scroll, or you can’t read the text and need to magnify it. (And in the worst cases, you need to scroll in multiple directions.) And there’s the loading wait when you turn a page. Most webcomics solve these problems by formatting their comics to fit most browsers, intentionally limiting the necessary scrolling and optimizing their text size for reading on monitors. The comics themselves are set up as compressed graphic images that load quickly. The archive sections of sites are usually designed with stripped-down graphics so that you can read through them quickly.
The major companies’ sites use java readers instead. Because their comics are typically optimized for print instead of a monitor, you end up with a window-in-window view that requires the annoying amount of scrolling and loading. Reading a single book can take several times as long as the printed version. Then why use them at all? Well, if there was no java application, someone could easily “pirate” the comic. They could download it, print it, email it to all of their friends, or even (gasp!) repost it somewhere else. Then they wouldn’t need to come to our site at all!
This makes marginal sense for paid subscription services: If you charge to access the content, and the content is available elsewhere for free, then you won’t make money. But if you think about this for a moment, you’ll realize that this is all classic “head in the sand” behavior from the company managements—if you know where to look online, you can find the latest DC and Marvel comics scanned from printed copies, along with all of best older stuff. It’s not as prolific as music or movie piracy (the audience isn’t as large), but it certainly exists and, like most things online, it can’t be stopped.
(As an aside, campaigns against piracy were doomed from the start, for two reasons: The first is that the underage drinking problem in this country and the failure of “the war on drugs” demonstrate that teenagers don’t follow laws they don’t want to follow. The second is that they called it “piracy”. Pirates are awesome. Who doesn’t want to be a pirate?)
Independent webcomic artists tend to solve this problem of piracy by not worrying about it and not antagonizing their audience. If you download the latest Order of the Stick, Rich Burlew isn’t going to have his lawyer army send a cease-and-desist letter. He probably won’t even get upset if you post the comic on your Livejournal, as long as you link back to the original: That’s likely to increase his readership, after all. A determined-type could copy his entire archive and repost it to another site and steal all of his traffic…but there’s no point in doing so. The site is free and accessible, and it’s not like there’s a challenge in copying that files. No one would reward you for doing it, and it doesn’t feel like an accomplishment. Why bother?
The guy who gets a bunch of old Marvels out of their java-window-lockdown and posts them someplace easy and free to read will get a forum’s-worth of happy thanks.
The big companies need to take a hard look at what they’re trying to accomplish on the web, who their audience is, and who their audience is going to be. Because the clock is ticking until webcomics take over completely, and if they don’t figure it out in time, they’re toast.
Next: How webcomics make money.