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January 26, 2012

Notes On Recent, Rolling Discussions Of Piracy And Economics

* Tim Hodler drives our attention to this post by Heidi MacDonald that links up a bunch of recent Internet discussion and activity on the subject of general comic-book industry economics, with piracy as the main, driving force of that conversation.

* I reject wholeheartedly the notion floated in Heidi's post that I was making any variation of a "comics people are broken people" argument by suggesting that comics people are anxious about the future right now. I think comics people are worried not because they're broken, wacky folk, but because they genuinely have a lot of things to be worried about. Comics is an historically exploitative industry, saddled with certain unrealistic expectations as to profit and reach, facing a time of fundamental changes in the way art is processed. I stand behind what I actually said in that short statement: that I think people are anxious and that this anxiety is driving a lot of the particular dramatics in various comics-related news stories right now -- including gossipy "news" about dissolving creative teams. I think the resulting super-touchy, contentious comments thread underneath Heidi's post strongly underlines my point.

image* whenever the subject of piracy comes up, I have to admit my personal difficulty in processing that issue the way it seems to be automatically processed -- as an economics of comics issue. I've never seen it that way, and I reject some of the assumptions that drive the conversation in that direction. I see piracy first and foremost as a violation of a creator's right to control what they've made and how it's sold, or their right to cede control over those decisions to an individual or institution of their choosing. I think the arguments on all sides that cast piracy as an economics issue assume that just by making something, a creator is entering into some unnamed compact that it be sold at maximum profit, thus opening up the floodgates of analysis as to how this is best achieved. I don't think this is true of my work, such as it is; I don't think it's true of a lot of folks' work. Further, I think once an artist lets us know what their aims are, those wishes are more important than the final result if we had sussed out the desired final result on our own or even if we think our final result is a better one for the creator. I think assuming control over someone else's work is wrong whether you make the creator $10 or cost them $10.

* on the other hand, I am greatly sympathetic to the argument, most recently articulated in lengthy fashion by David Brothers on his blog and on Twitter by Ivan Brandon, that the issue of piracy may serve as a smokescreen obscuring a lot of broader, more important issues that shape the current economic prospects for comics. I think this includes both structural issues and definite policy and strategy choices made by cartoonists and major industry players. I have a variation of my problem with cost analysis as applied to piracy here in that I think some things are wrong independent of how they may be argued to bottom-line benefit a creator or institution. For instance, I think the routine exploitation of creators -- past and present -- is wrong even if some of those creators are able to pay their bills more effectively than creators that enjoy greater freedom, because I think exploitation is an unnecessary evil. But in general, I agree with the notion that there are certainly more pressing, more distressing problems for comics-makers than people downloading comics somewhere.

* my big caveat as to where piracy stands in the constellation of today's issues, though, is that I'm open to the idea that the issue of comics piracy may be a crucial problem because of the fragile state of comics economics and the way that a relatively small shift in consumption and economic support might damage a system that's already strained in order to maximize profit in a direction that mostly flows away from the creators. I think it's pretty clear who bears the cost right now of any drop in profit levels no matter what the cause, and I would argue the first folks in line to shoulder a greater burden usually aren't a company's major shareholders. I also think that the future of major media conglomerate investment in the relatively modest margins of intellectual property development through the current model of comics publishing isn't a sure bet in the longterm for as long as it depends on that kind of profit expectation. It's a good bet, I think, particularly if you look at the bigger picture; it's just not a certain one, particularly as short-term goals tend to overwhelm longer ones across our culture. So I understand the attention, even if I believe the issue is much less complex than is frequently portrayed.

* in the end, we might admit that it's sort of fun to expound on various issues of the day and to make sweeping proclamations about The Future, or Why Everything Is Messed Up, or even Why What You're Doing Is Wrong If Not An Outright Denial Of Reality. Hell, "piracy" is even an entertaining word to type. I suspect, however, there's nothing all that glamorous or enjoyable to be found in the various tonics to all that ails the world of comics, and that things are bad enough we should maybe give up the search for a magic bullet, pick up a gun, and just start shooting. I believe it's still all about ethics in business and excellence in art, and finding ways to best facilitate both things in a way that supports and celebrates with dignity the best of what the medium has to offer. Every step in that direction seems to me worth taking; how broken you are matters less than how you move forward. Whether you're right or not matters less than what can be done.
posted 6:00 am PST | Permalink

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