Jim Zubkavich's Skullkickers, a lively action-comedy series about two monster-fighting mercenaries, has been one of the success stories of 2011 in the North American market, and now it turns out to have overseas fans as well. Last week, Zubkavich got an e-mail from someone named Roman who is translating Skullkickers into Russian, then carefully cleaning the English words out of the word balloons and replacing them with the new text. Roman actually e-mailed Zubkavich and asked if he would be willing to send unlettered pages to make the job easier.
"I have no idea how to properly respond to this," Zubkavich wrote on Twitter. "I mean, I can't send him page art like that, but it's just so damn bizarre." Zubkavich noted that he owns Skullkickers (which is published by Image), so he knows there are no plans for a Russian edition. A fascinating Twitter conversation followed, with Cameron Stewart arguing for sharing the files -- "it may be 'piracy' but I'd reckon the goodwill you'd get from authorizing it is significant" -- and Indigo Kelleigh expressing reservations: "But politely point out that him giving your work away for free makes it difficult for you to enter that market legitimately."
Zubkavich is still mulling it over, but he shared his e-mail reply to Roman with Robot 6:
I'm thrilled to hear that there are Russian readers enjoying Skullkickers. It's wonderful to know that there are dedicated people who want to read the comic so much that they would translate it for Russian fans.
But, sending raw page art, pages without word balloons or sounds, condones the illegal piracy of it, so it's a difficult legal decision for me to make. Your request is very unusual.
This is a complex situation, so I will need some time to think it over and discuss the situation with other people. Give me some time and I will email you again with an answer or possible comprimise.
He told Robot 6 he is talking to his lawyer and the licensing agent for Skullkickers, not about bringing legal action but about what the legal implications would be of sharing the raw files. And he added this:
Back in high school I discovered anime thanks to fan-subbed versions of Bubblegum Crisis, Appleseed and Kimagure Orange Road brought home by my brother from his first semester at university. I started reading manga thanks to translated scripts provided by the original anime BBS boards, pre-worldwide web. My first website was a Geocities fanpage for Masakazu Katsura where I had scripts and posted a rotating series of chapters for Video Girl Ai, Shadow Lady and I"s long before they were officially translated into English because I was a huge fan of his artwork. I empathize with these guys and am thrilled that they love the comic but I need to be careful. Turning a blind eye is different from sending raw page files and "officially" giving it a thumb's up.
A Makeshift Miracle fan has already translated chapter 1 into Japanese and I was thrilled when I saw it because that open concept is part of how we're releasing the story. But now, with Skullkickers, it's a whole different bag because of Skullkickers more traditional business model.
This particular case stands right in the center of the digital piracy conversation. Zubkavich understands that sharing content brings in new readers — that's his strategy with Makeshift Miracle, which he actually encouraged readers to share by torrenting — but, as he points out, Skullkickers has a "more traditional" business model. In other words, he wants to make money from it. This becomes a question of balance — giving away some content encourages new readers, but giving away too much makes the work worthless. Roman seems to be tipping the scales a bit too far.
On the other hand, my own take is that regional rights are an anachronism in this day and age, and that Zubkavich and Image should be releasing Skullkickers worldwide, even if only in English (a language that an awful lot of people outside North America can read). I wouldn't hire Roman as a translator, because he is doing machine translations, but I would consider proposals from professionals who were interested in revenue shares or doing the translation for a modest sum. If people are reading Skullkickers in Russia, and Zubkavich isn't selling it to them, then he's leaving money on the table — and who can afford to do that?