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Comic piracy is the copying (scanning) and/or distributing of copyrighted comics without the permission of the copyright holder. Intention and lack of awareness of the material's copyright status are not an excuse, legally.
Back during my early 20s, I was a part of the software piracy scene. Comparable to unprotected sex and driving while drunk, in your early 20s you tend to do stupid things. Back in those days, when the Internet was young, Internet Explorer didn't exist, Netscape was born from a program called Mosaic and guys like me with a fast internet connection (ADSL), were king. Why I mention this is that I'm going to interject numbers from then so you can compare them to now, to, hopefully, give you an idea of where comic piracy is possibly going (to compare software piracy then to comic piracy now).
When I was into software piracy, comic piracy wasn't even possible. Back then scanners were those bulky, black and white, hand scanners. You had to physically "roll" them down the page you wanted to scan and god forbid you went too slow or too fast. Good flat-bed color scanners were high priced and their quality was poor. It was the early 90s and games were still on disk -- the biggest game was generally under 5 megs in size, basically the size of a comic scanned today. It would take up upwards of an hour to download a game via dial-up but, if you could look forward to hours of gameplay, you overlooked tying up your phoneline. Although a scanned comic will only give you 5-30 minutes of enjoyment, it now takes less than 1-5 minutes to download a 5 meg file and how many people do you know still use a dialup modem?
Even back then IRC (more on what IRC is later in the article) was the place to hang out, yet, in IRC's infancy a popular software piracy channel had maybe 300 people hanging out (the internet was new -- we were geeks). Right now, IRC channels for comic piracy have those same sort of numbers -- around 300+ people in them. When I decided to check out some of my old IRC haunts, a couple months back, as research for this article, I discovered software piracy channels with over 5000 people. What was the cause for this increase? Simple answer -- technology and demand. Faster and cheaper computers and more people on the net. This begs the question, as technology continues to improve and comic demand increases, will the same happen to comics...? The purpose of this article is not to answer this question (as who can say) but to educate you on the scene so you can come to your own conclusion. At the very least, I hope it creates a foundation for discussing this issue.
One thing to remember about comic piracy -- it requires no real talent, in comparison to software piracy. Sure, there is some skill in scanning those old comics but there is no "ripping" of software (removing music or sound files for easier/faster distribution) nor "cracking" of software so it works without the CD. Anyone can use a scanner and so anyone can pirate comics. This is why it is so dangerous. It is similar to the illegal trading of mpegs. The software that exists makes it idiot-proof to rip songs from a CD and store them on a harddrive. Look at what's happened to music sharing -- it's exploded. And although record labels fight it, it's a losing battle because, in the end, it's a moral issue; when money is concerned, morals tend to go out the window.
Comic piracy is a variation of the software piracy "scene." Instead of just individuals, there are "groups" (dcp - digital comic preservation - being the largest) who are fairly organized in their scanning and distribution of pirated comics - very similar to that which exists in the software piracy scene.
As with software, a key to the prestige of the scene is the speed at which the pirated comic is made available. Early access is possible due to employment within the medium at distribution point (a comic store); I remember some of our best software pirates were people who worked for the companies. In comics piracy, someone in the group acquires the comic, scans it, and then distributes it via its "network." The most well known distribution network involves Usenet newsgroups.
In binary newsgroups, millions of messages are posted everyday which have all sorts of files imbedded in them. To access them you merely have to use a news "reading" program, such as Forte Agent. You join newsgroups, download message lists, and then download whatever message have the comics you wanted imbedded in them. Although at times fast for downloading, newsgroups are inconvenient for acquiring pirated comics if you don't have a sufficiently sophisticated program, which will automatically group and convert these messages into files and store them on your harddrive. As well, it is problematic and aggravating, if you miss a file (for any number of reasons, including times when there's a flood of comic issues and you're trying to get all of them) or have a bad newsgroup provider, resulting in parts of the message to be missing, and therefore an unsuccessful download. Once a comic has been posted, chances are, if you miss it, it won't be posted again or not for quite awhile. Nothing like getting every issue of a series except #7. As well, you can make requests for a certain comic to be made available, but that doesn't mean it ever will be. Newsgroups, in my opinion, are an outdated distribution system.
The truly significant comics piracy occurs via IRC, DC++ and BitTorrent. One DC++ site called The Batcave has people connected to it who have upwards of 400 GB (yes, GB) of comics. If we say it's an average of 10 MB per comic, that's the equivalent of over 40,000 comics in digital format. When I was part of the software piracy scene, I was a courier. I would FTP 0-Day software from one server to another and gain "credit" which I would "spend" by downloading software I wanted for myself. As I had time to kill and a fast connection, I quickly had more credit on these various sites than I could spend. Meanwhile, I had upwards of 100 CDs full of games (and this was when games were around 5 MB in size). When was I going to play all these games? What was the point? It's the same with comics. You're nothing if you don't have at least 20 GB of comics. After a week of downloading I had 10 GB myself. That amounts to 1,000 comics! When am I going to have the time to read 1,000 comics? 1,000 comics in printed form is about 3 long boxes. 1,000 comics in digital form is a mere 2 DVDs or 10 CDs.
Let's look at each distribution system:
IRC or "Internet Relay Chat": The best way to describe IRC is to use the imagery of cities. Each IRC network is a city and there are hundreds of networks (cities). In each network (city) there are hundreds of servers (buildings). In each server (building) there are hundreds of channels (rooms). Some of the larger networks (cities) have at least 30,000 channels (rooms) and 100,000+ users at any given moment and upwards of 10- to 30-thousand members (citizens) who interact on that server. These users (citizens) interact in these channels (rooms) based on certain topics. There are hundreds of channels on every server that most people will never see. Some of these rooms are based on topics that are questionable and only an elite circle of people are invited to these channels (they are hidden and password protected). These hidden channels include topics about piracy, child porn, terrorism, and drug distribution networks.
To interact in these channels you need to use a IRC client -- mIRC being the most popular client. Once you have the client running you merely have to connect to a server where the piracy group exists. Once you have connected to the server, the main distribution channel is usually public. Without a doubt there are a number of hidden/private, channels, where people higher up in the groups interact, but unless you join the group (you have something to offer them) you will never see the private channels.
Within the public channels 20-40 DCC file servers are available for you to download from. DCC software is built into your IRC client and so with a little tweaking you can begin to distribute pirated comics. It's that easy. Anyone can distribute comics -- part of how you rise in a piracy group is by first running a DCC server; as time passes, you make a name for yourself and you make friends with those higher up in the group. Then, once they feel they can trust you and feel you have something to offer, they open the door for rising up in the group -- it's the capitalist way.
To download from a DCC server, you merely create a connection using the '/ctcp' command (the full command to connect with each DCC server is published when the DCC advertises its services in the channel). You can either type "!list" to get a list of the DCC servers in the channel or wait until it automatically posts an ad in the channel describing what it has to offer and how to access its comics.
When you connect to the DCC server, you navigate it using 'cd' and 'dir' commands - similar to old DOS commands. If you have any problems, at any time, you can type 'help.' Piracy has become very user friendly.
Once you come across a comic you want, you type 'get' and the name of the comic. From there it goes into a queue (some DCC servers have queues of upwards of 200 comics -- depending on the speed of the connection) and you wait until yours is shipped to you. You don't have to sit there, mind you, you just have to minimize that window. Piracy while you wait. But it gets better, you can connect to as many DCC servers as you want -- you could be downloading 5-20 comics at any one time. As well, while you're downloading all these comics you can chat with the other 300+ people in the channel.
As more and more people join, the channel gets bigger and bigger. This is part of the pay off to piracy groups. They battle on their speed of distribution of 0-Day comics and the numbers of users they have via the assorted distribution channels. New piracy groups, who want to make a name for themselves, will have to attract members for distributing the comics, users to spread their name and a source of 0-Day comics. The reward is prestige in being in that group.
The comics available are quality scans and range from rare items to 0-Day comics. 0-Day comics, like 0-Day software (known as "warez"), are comics available for download on the same day or prior to their release at your local comics store. As with pirated movies, it's possible to read a comic online before someone is able to purchase it in the store.
Once I decided I wanted to investigate comic piracy, I was able to find the server and channel within a couple minutes -- you just have to ask Google the right questions. Within two days of getting access to the distribution channel, I had over 100 comics on my computer. I'm not exaggerating when I state that thousands and thousands of comics are available. If it isn't available, it will be soon as some people are scanning in their collections constantly and making them available to everyone else. If you were able to ignore the fact that it represents lost revenue and hurts the medium, it would be rather impressive.
DC++ for comic piracy is the equivalent to FTP for software piracy in my day but even better. Not only do you get to download as much as you want at fast speeds but nowadays you can even chat at the same time. You can setup 2 GB worth of downloads, go to bed and when you get up the next day they're sitting on your computer. The problem with DC++ is that it isn't terribly user-friendly for setting up. Nowadays, thanks to hackers, just to survive on the net you need firewalls and routers to protect yourself from net attacks, and so, to use DC++, you have to be able to tell the firewall and router to let the DC++ connection through, as unlike http, it's not built into their systems. Although DC++ is the fastest way to distribute comics, it is also the least used. If it ever gets more user friendly, watch out.
There are five DC++ comic piracy hubs in the alliance (comic piracy groups working together) network. Three require a minimum amount of scanned comics for you to get access (1 GB, 5 GB and 20 GB). The final two piracy hubs are invite only and therefore have no limit as those who interact on them are well known in the group. 1 GB of comics isn't hard to get but when you get about 5 GB, you're entering the hoarding zone. The people with 5+ GB aren't where the lost sales are unless they're distribution points. A number of people who connect to these sites and carry a lot of comics are BitTorrent Hubs.
BitTorrent was created to decrease the bandwidth cost of software companies distributing their software by utilizing the unused upload bandwidth of customers. How it works is similar to how the file sharing program Kazaa works. Instead of one source, many sources upload the file at the same time. The result is that the bandwidth cost is shared and (more importantly to some), the speed at which a file is distributed is increased exponentially as the file is uploaded by many sources at the same time. Needless to say, this is a positive for any form of file distribution including piracy.
The largest pirated comic distributor via BitTorrent is operated by Z-Cult FM. It is also one of the 3 DC++ alliance hubs. If you were to go to their site you would discover that they have (at the time this article was written) 16,000+ registered users, an active message forum and close to 700+ Torrent files.
All you have to do is download the BitTorrent program and then go to the Z-Cult FM web page. On the web page there are links to Torrent files. These are small files that tell the program where to download the comics from (the various people who are sharing their bandwidth for that collection of comics). Once you've downloaded the Torrent file, you run BitTorrent and it does the rest. It's quite easy to use.
Having downloaded and read a number of NFO files (information files that go with pirated comics), there are varying views on comic piracy. Some groups will only scan and make available comics older than 2 years. All profess that it is done to protect the medium (comics degrade with age) and make comics available to people who wouldn't normally be able to read the comic (the speculation market increases the value of a comic and thereby making it too expensive for some readers to purchase and enjoy).
As a comic reader, I acknowledge the reasoning. Comics such as Flex Mentallo and Grendel Volume 1 may never be reprinted, due to legal issues in the first case and a lack of interest by the creator in the second case. The problem is two-fold:
1) Its effect on the sale of TPBs. Scanning comics is like crack; it's addictive, and it has become a competition by some scanners -- who can scan and make available comics that are on the unscanned list. It's getting hard to find mainstream comics that haven't been scanned. A lot of what is left to scan are rare or obscure titles. Now that all the issues of Planetary or Uncanny X-Men are available for download and reading, why buy the TPB collecting the issues?
2) Its effect on the sale of weekly comics. The appearance of the 0-Day comic scans -- comics scanned and distributed on the day they are produced. Does this cause loss of comic sales?
I wanted to get some input from people who might be affected by comic piracy. Retailer Brian Hibbs of Comix Experience in San Francisco said "I'm not especially concerned, no. By and large I look upon those as sales we probably never would have gotten in the first place -- starving students and whatnot. I don't think that downloading comics will ever really be 'mainstream' like downloading music because a computer screen isn't the same dimensions, or the same experience as reading a printed comic. If there is a direct effect, I don't know it. Sales are, as always, pointing upwards. Indirectly, I have no idea, but no one has ever said to me that they're downloading comics and that's why they're not buying something. Not that they'd tell me, of course -- but I've heard such silence on the subject from my customer base that I expect that few, if any, are doing it."
Jevon Kasitch of Electric City Comics in Schenectady, New York says "At this point in time I've seen no effect at all from online piracy of material. I know that it's starting to happen, but I think the 'reading experience' is not yet to the standard where any measure able number of customers will do it. Now as the 'need to collect them all' in paper form goes away, and technology gets better and faster I see it as a real issue that will have impact, but we're still probably half a decade out yet. Once again comics are saved because so few care, and their inherent clunkyness as a medium."
I would have to agree with those retailers, based on the technology Jevon Kasitch alludes to. As Brian Hibbs states, if sales were being affected, you would see a drop in the monthly sales, as more and more people pirate comics (and, like the internet, the comic piracy scene is expanding) but you don't see a drop. In fact, comic sales are increasing. So is the drop nominal and offset by the growth in comic buyers due to the popularity of superhero movies? Are people who pirate comics merely pirating comics that they wouldn't buy otherwise? Are comic pirates reading comics they have a passing interest in on the computer and still purchasing comics, their purchases of paper comics are ones they feel are "worth" the dollar investment?
As for technology, right now the best way to view comics is by a piece of software called CDisplay. That said, although the software lends itself a greater enjoyment of reading comics on the computer screen than in the past, it still is clunky as monitor eye strain prevents the same level of enjoyment compared to reading a printed comic. Not to mention the lack of mobility.
Yet, I see something happening in the future with digital comics that printed comics can't accomplish. With the increase in the quality and size of computer monitors and TV, eventually you will be able to view a digital comic on a large LCD monitor/TV. Imagine reading your favorite comic on a large LCD screen or even better, via software, making the comic 3D.
You might argue that printed comics are portable but soon there will be technological advances where products like IPods will be the size of comic books, paper thin, touch screens, with enormous storing capabilities and LCD viewing quality. That is the future. Jevon Kasitch guesses that's five years away...not too far off, in my opinion. Will comics survive it or will they have to change? I don't know but, for now, taking my digital copy of We3 #1 into the bathroom or out on the deck on a sunny day is next to impossible. Printed comics still have their place, but with everything else in this technological age, the question is, when will they be outdated?