Online Piracy Is Not Destroying Cartoonists’ Incomes

(This is a slightly modified thread I wrote on Twitter yesterday).


Here’s the thing: Piracy is not taking money out of our wallets. Getting rid of pirated comics won’t cause readers to spend more money buying comics.

To illustrate why, let me talk about when I was a teen.

I’m Gen X. When I was a teen, I bought a new album every week or two. Everyone once in a while, I saw a concert.

And I had a collection of ten times as many albums as I bought. Mostly on cassettes tapes, illegally recorded from my friend’s albums.

Or they were recorded from someone else’s illegal taped copy, which may itself have been recorded from another illegal copy.

Let’s say that I spent $15 a month back then on music (about $35 in today’s dollars). If all those illegal tapes weren’t available, you know how much I would have been spending on music?

About $15 a month.

Because my music budget wasn’t very elastic.

I had my allowance. I had what I earned working part-time at the grocery store. And I had expenses other than entertainment.

My music budget was determined by how much I could afford to spend on music, not by how much music I listened to.

When cartoonists say “they’d be buying more comics if piracy didn’t exist,” they’re imagining that readers’ comic budgets are determined by how many comics they read.

But that’s wrong. People’s comic budgets are determined by how much they can reasonably spend on comics.

So when I see cartoonists, or really any creator, looking at 1000 people reading a pirated copy of their comic and seemingly thinking “that would have been 1000 sales for me if piracy didn’t exist” – well, no, that’s not how it works.

People have finite budgets for entertainment.

Getting rid of piracy, even if that were possible, wouldn’t change how much most people spend on entertainment.

Incidentally, in the 80s, I didn’t know a single teen who didn’t have illegal tapes of music. Some people had many, some just a few, but NO ONE had none.

How many Gen-Xers huffing about damn kids these days expecting media for free, honestly never had illegal tapes?

Or, for people a decade or so younger, never copied a game or an album from a friend’s digital files?

Or, for kids in this century, have never borrowed a friend’s Netflix password?

Entertainment budgets are finite. Therefore, there’s only two ways people will buy more comics.

First, when comic readers’ incomes grow, their entertainment budgets grow, and they buy more.

Second, if comics get cheaper, readers could buy more comics with the same entertainment budget.

Piracy is not reducing our incomes. Getting rid of piracy won’t make people’s comic-buying budgets any larger. It would only mean people would be reading fewer comics.

(And also, fewer kids will get addicted to reading comics in the first place. Yay!)

Most people spend more on non-pirated media as their budgets grow.

(That’s why middle-aged people buy more non-pirated media than teens; we’re not more moral, we just have more money.)

So kids pirating comics now, is good for cartoonists twenty years from now.

Comics’ problem isn’t piracy. (And it’s not diversity.)

It’s that comics today provide much less bang for the buck than in the past (comic prices have gone up WAY faster than inflation). It’s that the big 2’s products are impenetrable to newbies. It’s that the comics distribution system is amazingly badly designed.1

Middle grade & YA graphic novels are growing much faster than the rest of the comics industry. You know why? It’s not that we do better work. And it’s not that we’re not pirated.

It’s that the book industry doesn’t rely on the Marvel/DC mess, and has better distribution.

P.S. I used to use pirated copies of PhotoShop to make comics. Now I pay for PhotoShop, because I can. I’m pretty sure 1000s of other cartoonists, including some of the ones angry about piracy, did the same.

  1. For those who hate video links, Here’s a long essay – Shut The Fuck Up, Marvel by spacetwinks – going into that in more detail. []
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8 Responses to Online Piracy Is Not Destroying Cartoonists’ Incomes

  1. 1
    nobody.really says:

    Or, for kids in this century, [how many] have never borrowed a friend’s Netflix password?

    I doubt that any of them have borrowed their friend’s password. They borrow their friend’s mom’s password.

  2. 2
    J. Squid says:

    Sure. For me, that’s TV or movies. If you’re product isn’t freely available to me on one of the viewing things (cable, streaming, broadcast, whatever), I’m not paying extra to see it. My budget is already used up. And since I’m way too lazy to pirate view anything, I’ll just never see your work. No big loss for me since so much other quality viewables are already available to me on what my budget is paying for. (So DisneyPlus can sequester whatever content they want. Either I own an ancient DVD of the thing or I just won’t watch it if they’re gonna make me pay even more. But here I digress into my own personal spiral of obsessions and pathological hatred of all things Disney. They can fuck right off for promoting movies like Dumbo to kids. Assholes.)

    And we can extend this to almost any product (artistic or not). There’s some loss to piracy, but probably not enough to make a difference in most cases and, therefore, overall. Well, for that sort of piracy. If you’re pirating stuff and then selling it as if it were from the original owner/producer, that could make a big difference.

  3. 3
    Petar says:

    Piracy does not hurt good artists or software developers. It most certainly hurts mediocre and bad ones.

    I grew up in Eastern Europe, where there was no IP protection for either home or imported material, and where a legit Western record or cassette were easily two or three day wages. I had three legit cassettes, and I still remember them. I gave one to a girlfriend (Queen’s A King of Magic) and still have the other two (Judas Priest’s British Steel and Accept’s eponymous one) My sister had two – a Dorothée and a Madonna one. Of course, those five would come out only to make copies for myself, and the best of my friends. Nowadays, the Judas Priest cassette only plays in my 30 year old Supra on special occasions. Yeah, the recording has degraded a lot, but it’s still an event.

    Those were artists I loved. I would have bought more, but I could not afford them. The rest of the stuff I really liked, I got on Hungarian bootlegs – much cheaper, while still pirated or merely unauthorized covers.

    But without piracy, my spending would have been a lot less targeted. I would not have known which album I would like the most, so I would have been buying crap more often. I certainly did when I came to the US, where I ended up buying Cake, Marillion, Weird Al, etc… and dozens of others I could not name if you held a gun against my head. If I could go back in time, I’d have all of those bands albums, using the money I spent on the crap I do not even remember.

    Today, I can pirate practically everything. No, I am not exagerating. I can do a targeted search and understand the results in pretty much every European language except Finish, and can get around in written Arabic and Chinese. Everything halfway popular is out there. It may be hard to get some movies without a dub, but it’s doable.

    I still buy plenty of media, but only the stuff where I want to support the artist. (And no, I feel absolutely no guilt, as I consider that IP holders have broken the contract with society that led to the laws in the first place) For example, I own thousands of trade paperback comics (including four of Barry Deutsch, and what’s up with not always having your name on the cover? In case you’re wondering, no he has not published a fourth Mirka, it’s just that my wife and I were not yet married when Mirka got her sword.)

    So my point, is that piracy allows you to consume all the media you have time for, and channel all of your media budget to the creators you like. I read a lot. I check quite a bit of the drivel that John Ringo and Tom Kratman shit out, but I won’t buy their stuff. Instead, I may buy a couple of Nook books by Ken MacLeod or Frank Chadwick for my friends. (Barnes and Noble needs love too)

    By the way, I also read and fail to compensate some of the woke counterparts of John Ringo. But I decided that I do not want to get banned again, for expressing my opinion of them.

    So, yes, piracy hurts some cartoonists and other assorted artists. It’s not a bad thing.

  4. 4
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    An author flooded pirate sites with defective copies of her book, and found that e-sales were much better.

  5. 5
    Patrick Linnen says:

    Here, here.

    It wasn’t until after college that my comic purchases took off. I mean I did get several while in college like Judge Dredd, ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ and a couple of the funnier Spiderman issues (like the one where he follows a crook into suburbia.) I have about 9 yard-long container boxes of them, a lot of black-and-white and a lot of independent.

    And yes, after Marvel and DC (and Image) started buy up their competitors, and went full doom, gloom, and retcon to recycle the same story over and over, I lost interest. I switched to Japanese manga and found it to be an enormous improvement.

  6. 6
    KellyK says:

    A lot of good points here. Someone’s entertainment budget pretty much is what it is. When I switched from being a highly paid technical writer to a happier and saner crisis worker making *a lot less* my comics budget pretty much dried up. I really love Wonder Woman and Ms. Marvel, but I haven’t had the budget or the reading time to keep up with them. The cost of individual comics is one issue. The impossibility of “catching up” and feeling like you’ve got to subscribe to multiple series to follow one story just adds to that.

    I’m kind of compulsively honest, so I tend to go for media that authors provide for free rather than pirating, but in my college days my music collection was about a 50/50 split between CDs I acquired in high school and random things pulled from Napster.

    I do think piracy probably costs artists some percentage of sales. A consumer might have $15 to spend on art either way, but if they couldn’t get the stuff they wanted for free, they might prioritize that $15 differently.

  7. 7
    Mandolin says:

    I think there are a number of unproveable, or at least unproven, assumptions here. I think they also show up in arguments about piracy from the other side. But it’s an awfully strong claim to say there is no difference, that there is no elasticity in budgets, that everyone is as scrupulous about how they apportion their budgets as you are. I think you are making these claims very strongly because the piracy-angry people make their claims very strongly, but for me, it undermines your general points.

    We have found explicitly in short fiction that offering work for free has resulted in some (possibly a great deal of) devaluation. Some long fic authors have had no problem operating on a pay-as-you-like basis; others not. Talk to one of your RPG friends at least, and you’ll hear that the “here is my coffer if you have a bit” model stopped working as well at some point when it became more ubiquitous so that it felt less like a “hey, here’s a thing I am sharing with this creator” and more like a mundane duty.

    Even if there is an effect on income, that doesn’t mean current anti-piracy plans are useful, or that the problem is bad enough to require a plan at all. But- I think the truth is likely to be that there are fairly complex interactions, and that we probably can’t derive what they are from our personal beliefs about human moral behavior. Or at any rate, my beliefs are similar to yours, and I was wrong about the shortfic market regarding similar topics–I don’t think therefore that my belief structure has strong predictive power.

    Tl;dr – I think you’re right that the anti-piracy folks overstate their positions, but I don’t think there’s enough data presented (or possibly in existence) to support your hunches as facts rather than possibilities.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    It’s very inconsiderate of you to be so reasonable and correct, Mandolin. :-p

    I composed this post (which was originally a series of tweets) in response to the sort of complaint that says “there have been 70,000 illegal downloads of my comic, if those 70,000 were sales instead I’d be getting paid $xxxx, therefore I have lost $xxxx income due to online piracy,” which really bugs me because that’s honestly not how things work. But you’re right, I went too far in the opposite direction.