Digital Rights Management: How long until we go DRM-free?

Image Comics caused a stir earlier in the month with the announcement that the company’s digital comics would now be available entirely DRM-free. During the one-day Image Expo event – which also saw the announcement of even more creator-owned titles from high-profile industry names – the publisher revealed that readers would be able to buy digital comics on various file formats entirely free of the digital controls.

Could this move be another signpost on the road to the funeral of digital rights management?

Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 14.40.30 We’ve already addressed the issues of DRM – particularly in the case of comiXology crashes and the dearly departed JManga. Under these controls, consumers are (often unknowingly) only buying a license to access DRM-content, rather than purchasing true ownership of their books/comics/music/etc. Ostensibly, DRM is a method of controlling piracy. You can’t purchase the latest issue of Saga or Daredevil on comiXology and then instantly post them online or email them to your friends, as users will be able to under Image’s new system. But the truth is that piracy was a problem long before the advent of digital comics. Illegal scans have been available for years, frequently on the day of release. If a person wants to download all or any comics for free, they can do so with the minimum of trouble. DRM doesn’t change that.

“My stance on piracy is that piracy is bad for bad entertainment,” Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson told Wired. “There’s a pretty strong correlation with things that suck not being greatly pirated, while things that are successful have a higher piracy rate. If you put out a good comic book, even if somebody does download it illegally, if they enjoy it then the likelihood of them purchasing the book is pretty high. Obviously we don’t want everybody giving a copy to a hundred friends, but this argument has been around since home taping was supposedly killing music back in the ’70s, and that didn’t happen. And I don’t think it’s happening now.”

The nature of DRM is frequently that it does nothing to curb piracy and instead serves only to harm the people who are willing to pay for their digital products. And what companies save in products their customers share with friends is likely to cost them more in goodwill. People recommend and share things – that’s the nature of the world. If they feel they are being misused they will take their business elsewhere – just look at the reports that emerged when Microsoft was maintaining its DRM policies for Xbox One against Sony’s plans for PlayStation 4. Microsoft has since backed down on its plans to limit the lending and resale of games.

Image’s move was preceded by an even bolder experiment by Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martin, who have released The Private Eyea new DRM-free, name-your-own price series. Customers are free to download the comics without paying, but the creators are reporting that this is rarely the outcome. “It’s succeeded way beyond my wildest expectations,” Vaughan told The Verge. “We’ve had tens of thousands of readers from all over the planet download the first two issues in multiple languages, and I’m shocked and honoured to say that the majority of them paid at least something for the experience.”

The comics industry is further complicated by frequently strong loyalties to publishers – with some readers sticking fiercely to their favourite title come hell and high water – so it will be interesting to see if the DRM debate begins to affect policy at Marvel and DC Comics (who still control an overwhelming majority of the industry between them). If the move proves fruitful for Image – which I expect it will – I’m sure this won’t be the last time the issue of DRM in digital comics comes under scrutiny. And as DRM is ditched in another corner of the marketplace, I wonder how soon it will be before other retailers, publishers and platforms follow suit and adopt more enlightened policies across the digital landscape.

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