Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

November 29, 2010

More On Comics, Piracy, Entitlement

If you're tracking the issue of comics piracy as put on the front burner by this Colleen Doran essay as published at The Hill, there are few follow-ups you might be interested in pursuing. There are about eight pages of comments on the original article. There were 124 comments from readers of Heidi MacDonald's mostly-comics site The Beat. A site called Techdirt wrote about it. Longtime writer about comics Johanna Draper Carlson wrote about it here. Draper Carlson's article has fostered its own discussion, including several fierce slams like this one from Shaenon Garrity.

I think they're all worth a dispassionate read. I agree with very little of the follow-up outside of Garrity's blunt and truthful comments, but it's worth reading the arguments made. As I've written before, I think the rhetoric surrounding this issue is deeply screwed up to the point where I'm not certain rational discussion is possible without a lot of work, work that may by itself diminish the effectiveness of the discussion. One big barrier made clear with this latest round of argumentation is that like most business issues the tendency/desire/requirement is to ground these arguments in a bottom line. While I understand the reason this is done, the problems with this become manifold. No one can really measure these figures with certainty. The figures may change drastically according to individual example and idiosyncratic context -- context that may even depend on the argument not evolving. Worst of all, discussing figures and the accompanying value of gain/loss allows those that wish to rationalize or legitimize certain practices the ability to make a best-interests argument. Not only should someone almost never be allowed to make a best-interests argument for another person, the arguments in this arena are usually based on those aforementioned assertions of nebulous figures or isolated, potentially non-replicable examples. It's a mess.

Another barrier, at least from my perspective, is that I find some of the argumentation about the inevitability of piracy to be a bit leaky. For one thing, it seems to me if you insist on seeing piracy as a cohering reality without moral agency -- something that just "is," like it or lump it -- you have to make a much better argument than exists to refuse various counter-moves the right to that same amoral standing. A vaguely pressed, underlying assertion that one set of beliefs and actions is of the people and the embodiment of younger virtues or the future and another set is of or equivalent to the workings of corporations and uncool/old/fearful/greedy people, that just doesn't cut it outside of the virtual high fives of commentary threads. It's unearned, it's loaded, and it's potentially hostile to those that exist out of the asserted paradigm, like artists. A second problem is that an inevitability stance too easily and too thoroughly conflates mechanisms of economic change with the outcomes of personal choice, which leads to easy rationalization of all sorts of scary behavior and oversimplifies the actual mechanisms by which such things function. A third problem is that I think these discussions underplay the ability of this culture -- any culture -- to change its mind in a meaningful way. For instance, I think there's a decent argument to be made that the wholesale swiping of by-lined text on-line progressed through stages where at one point those of us that work in that medium were told with pompous certainty many of the same things those that make other kinds of art -- art that is only now technologically as easy to re-distribute and consume as text was early on -- are being told today. I know my attitude and practices have changed in areas where I'm solely a consumer, in some cases multiple times and almost never where I'm told I'm going to end up. I bet that's the case for many of you. I know from talking to young people when I've been able to about their consumption habits concerning manga that many evince different attitudes about such issues in their mid-20s than they did in their late-teens. Does the monolith exist and do we really know its nature? I'd say no and hell no.

Let me repeat my strong belief that digital piracy be seen as a creator's rights issue, and that doing so avoids much of the morass detailed above. A creator should have the right to plot the basic economic course of what they make. That doesn't mean they have the right to a desired outcome, only that they should get to choose the process by which they want to make that work available to the consumer. We should all do a better job of respecting those rights throughout our conduct with comics. I have some work to do in this area myself. These personal decisions are important, and given enough of them, they matter. I would argue that such choices are far more important than the skillful wrangling of a conjectural future designed to flatter our sense of personal place within it.
posted 7:00 am PST | Permalink

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