At the Content Protection Summit (yes, there is such a thing) in LA a few weeks ago, a Warner Brothers exec, Ben Karakunnel, discussed some insights into digital piracy that the company has gleaned through its reseach. Apparently WB has been tracking both P2P and streaming of their movies, and they have come to some interesting conclusions—which may have implications for comics as well.
One key insight, which vindicates the indignant comments whenever a site like scans_daily, HTMLcomics.com, or Onemanga.com is shut down, is that people who use pirate sites also pay for their media.
Even the most diehard pirates spend some money, though less than more casual infringers. “One of the main things we’re doing is looking at why they do things legitimately on certain products and not on others,” said Karakunnel.
Another is that people are finding their free media via specialty sites that link to it rather than search engines. That's also significant for comics. Publishers have been doing a better job lately of making their own sites rank ahead of pirate sites on search engines, but if everyone is heading over to Surfthechannel to see what's new, it really doesn't matter. In fact, the difference here seems to be between looking for something you already know exists and looking for something new to watch—which means those link sites could have considerable promotional value.
Finally, and this translates directly to books and comics, piracy is huge in international markets. This is another common theme in the comments on bootleg manga sites; people use them because they can't get the manga in their home countries. Square Enix, with its U.S.-only paid manga site, doesn't seem to have gotten the memo, but Yen Press has made its online magazine Yen Plus available worldwide. Here's a great post from a writer about prose e-books who lays it on the line:
There are no more regional rights. The new regions are the boundaries of language. You get to sell English-language worldwide. All other languages are now the sub-rights for “regions.”
Anyone who thinks that is wrong should check the linked post as well as this one, in which the author tries to pay money for an e-book but is not allowed to because he lives in Canada. They call it the world wide web for a reason; region-blocking just creates a vacuum that pirates are happy to fill.