It was a special ingredient in the Thanksgiving stuffing that no one expected.
Until now, Marvel and DC, the two largest publishers in the American comics industry, had turned a blind eye to the thriving online culture of downloading comics. The nexus of this culture was the BitTorrent site Z-Cult FM which hosted trackers to downloadable files of thousands of comics. It's estimated that nearly 90% of all Marvel and DC comics have been scanned and are available for download, with virtually every comic from the '80s on available. On November 21st, "Serj", the administrator of the site, received letters from both Marvel and DC asking Z-Cult FM to stop hosting the trackers. Apparently Marvel and DC had been working together for some time on this move—an unusual team-up that shows the gravity of the perceived threat from comics piracy.
The situation evolved quickly from there. "Serj", who lives outside the United States and thus would in theory not be subject to US Copyright laws, nonetheless complied. ("Serj"'s reaction to the stoppage can be read in this Newsarama interview.) Initially, all Marvel books were to be removed, but DC comics would be available 30 days after they hit the stands. However, after further communication from DC, Z-Cult FM has agreed to remove all DC trackers as well.
Z-Cult FM always had a policy in place whereby any request from a publisher to remove their comics would be honored. In short order, Top Cow also contacted the site to remove their comics; in addition SLG has asked for their Disney comics not to be uploaded.
With the exception of DC, what all these companies have in common is their own download-for-pay comics services. SLG has Eyemelt; Top Cow offers their comics Direct2Drive.com. And of course, Marvel recently announced its own Digital Comics Unlimited program, whereby users can read Marvel comics online for a subscription fee.
Both DC and Marvel declined to comment on this story. However, Marvel's top brass has been alluding to the problems of comics piracy in many interviews. In a recent interview at Comic Book Reources, Marvel president Dan Buckley stated, "We will be reviewing and evaluating 'illegal' downloading activities on a case by case basis."
True to their word, when "Deicide," admin at another another comics tracking site ComicSearch, wrote to Marvel to protest the Z-Cult FM actions Marvel responded by asking them to remove their Marvel trackers.
But will the downloaders just find another place to go? While not many people publicly own up to it, for obvious reasons, downloading comics is a huge part of the readership of comics now. Just as Napster spawned the entire music and movie piracy issue which has been tormenting the music industry ever since, Z-Cult FM formed the basis of a thriving culture in downloading. Before the shutdown, interested parties could download "Day 0" packs containing every Wednesday's releases in a convenient archive to be easily digested.
While it's easy to see why Marvel and DC were alarmed by this pracice, supporters of the tracking sites point out that it was also a depository for comics that are no longer available, whether from a historical standpoint or because of legal problems.
Fans also say that the easily downloadable comics actually help readership of Marvel and DC — free samples can lead to people picking up books they never would have read otherwise. A comment thread at Z-Cult contained many "testimonials" by readers who say they started buying comics as a result of downloaded "sampling."
The issue of downloading comics won't go away soon—comics trackers are readily available at surviving BitTorrent sites —and seems poised to bedevil the comics industry as much as it has the music industry. Observers point out that comics will likely have as little success stamping out comics piracy as the music industry has. Todd Allen, author of The Economics of Webcomics, and a columnist on digital issues for Comic Book Rources comments, "Comics are following the music industry. Unfortunately, the music industry is almost ready to concede the point and start dropping Digital Rights Management on downloads, whereas comics are just now reaching for the lawyers. The biggest difference between music and comics, in terms of the torrent economic sphere, is that comics are still collectables, first and foremost."
It's an irony that many have pointed out that even as torrent sites have thrived, comics sales have gone up—not down. "If torrents were going to kill off print sales, print sales wouldn't be up," said Allen. "There is a very real possibility that torrents, effectively advertising in this case, have been a factor in sales spikes. People will want a physical copy of an inherent physical product. Crossgen did the research on this 5 years ago and went under before they had a chance to properly implement that research."
Whether its called "digital sampling" or "piracy" there's also the question of how much BitTorrented comics actually increase comics sales. "What needs to be determined is how many people doing illegal downloading are also paying customers either supplementing or sampling," said Allen. "Is this part of the new economy? Cory Doctorow gives away digital copies of his novels because it increases his print sales. Ditto Baen books. Novels are closer to comics than .mp3s are. It is certainly within a company's right to squash out the sites, but they need to balance it with alternatives and the alternatives are slim to middling right now."
And the pirates are fighting back: ComicSearch's “Deicist” has vowed to move his site's server to Sweden where not even earth's mightiest heroes may be able to stop him.