Comics writer and BOOM! Studios Chief Creative Officer Mark Waid delivered the keynote address Saturday at the Harvey Awards ceremony at Baltimore Comic-Con, and from all accounts, it was a doozy. Heidi MacDonald live-tweeted the event and summed it up later in a post.
From her account, Waid's speech was about the importance of having a public domain, and his point was that, originally, copyright existed to give creators an exclusive right to their work for a reasonable time and then release it to the public domain. "No one would argue that the world isn't better by being able to see a Renoir for free," MacDonald quoted Waid as saying, adding, "Now big corporations use copyright extended under the illusion it helps us all. Giving back to public domain helps culture, says Waid." As for file sharing, Waid says, it's "legit" to worry about it but "it isn't going away. We can't stop it and we're entering the sharing era." (All quotes drawn from MacDonald's tweets.)
After the ceremony, MacDonald reported, Waid and cartoonist Sergio Aragones had some sort of heated discussion, although it ended in a hug. She caught up with Aragones after everyone was thrown out of the bar and did a quick interview:
Paraphrasing here a bit, but Sergio was advocating more for the idea that the spread of free content has devalued content, making it harder for people to make a living at it. He said a couple of things that I tried to jot down, one that (I’m paraphrasing) “quality has to be considered again” and the one I tweeted “If you give everything away for free, you have ruined everything.”
My own take is that they are both right. Technology and the Internet make it easier than ever before to reproduce and share content and, right or wrong, people are going to do it. And revisions to the copyright law have given not just creators but their descendants and faceless corporations the exclusive right to use content for longer and longer terms, a situation that benefits a few at the expense of the rest of us. At the same time, as Aragones points out, taking away the financial reward makes people less inclined to create and sets up a marketplace of the lowest common denominator. The key to the dilemma is that the internet is not quite as flat as people make it out to be; in general, higher quality work attracts a bigger audience, and the more successful creators have managed to monetize that. Dean Haspiel sums it up neatly in the comments to MacDonald's post:
I’ve been giving away my comix [for free] since 2006 when I launched ACT-I-VATE.com.
I didn’t make a steady living with the stuff I gave away for free but it absolutely helped brand and market my sensibilities and got me paying gigs.
Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy addressed the topic on a more pragmatic level in an interview with Ishaan at Siliconera. He sketched out a pragmatic strategy for pirates that relies on both vigorous defense of property rights and simply making a product that is more appealing than the free stuff online.
We have to provide significant value. That could be in the overall experience — or it could be in some sort of incremental value that is only found in the legal version. Some people suggest that could be “better translations” but I’m not so sure. I think it has to be the overall experience — which is challenging because currently the online scanlation experiences are very nice.
However, they are so flagrant that most likely those sites will have a tough time surviving as-is. The pirates will need to go further underground — and fans may still prefer their versions. But if the legal versions are very easy to use and affordable then hopefully many fans will support the creators by going that route.
And like all publishers in the real world, he picks his battles:
Most music and video piracy is through torrent and other sites which take time and patience. Manga piracy is currently flagrant — you just go to a website and click away. That’s so disrespectful of the creators that, frankly, it’s rude. That’s why legal action needed to be taken.
(Image from the ill-fated Captain Copyright comic; ironically, I can't find any copyright information or I would cheerfully give proper credit.)