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Image Expo 2013: Image Drops the Mic & Gives the Middle Finger Part 2, DRM Free Vs. Ownership

Earlier today we released the first part and a few follow ups debunking the myth perpetuated by other sites that Image Comics is the first publisher to offer DRM free digital comics. They are the largest (we think) so far to do so and if I’m wrong please fact check me on that, but from what I’ve looked at, I’m pretty sure.

Though Image’s Director of Business Development Ron Richards told CBR, “You buy it, you own it,” I remain skeptical because there’s a far difference between being DRM free and owning something.


DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is a way for copyright holders and technology companies to manage consumers’ uses of products they purchase after they purchase them. The easiest example is purchasing a book and only being able to read it on one reader or having to confirm the purchase of a product by entering a key or connecting with a server over and over. The last one being an issue that’s come up in the video game industry.

We as consumers deal with DRM every day, for instance  being locked down as to what we can watch on television. When iTunes launched, they instituted FairPlay DRM for their entire music library. In April of 2009 though, the company changed their policy increasing the price of tracks and selling music DRM free, though video and apps still employ Fairplay DRM. So, this is not uncommon, but how it’s implemented can become a firestorm, just ask Microsoft.

If you’ve ever bought a digital comic book, your experience probably went something like this: You opened up an app like ComiXology, paid around $1.99 to $3.99 — likely, the same price as a print issue — but never downloaded the file for the comic to your hard drive. That’s because you don’t really own it — you’ve simply licensed the right to look at it in someone else’s library.

…Image Comics announced at its Image Expo convention that it will now sell all of its digital comics as downloadable via its website for both desktop and mobile users, making it the first major U.S. publisher to offer DRM-free digital versions of comics.

Yes, Image is probably the largest publisher to offer DRM free. But that doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly arrived at a point where we own everything that we purchase through them, there is a difference between ownership and DRM free. Mere possession is not ownership. Content creators do have a history of calling something “owned” up until the point it no longer suits them, but without a Terms of Service about digital purchases, it’s unclear as consumers what our rights are. Just because something is DRM free doesn’t mean we own it outright, there can still be fine print which isn’t clear currently. So, to me this announcement comes off more as a public relations stand than something new and ground breaking.

Entertainment Consumers Association founder and President Hal Halpin sums it up nicely in addressing the same debate when it comes to video games:

We know that, to be blunt, consumers consume. We purchase, rent or license what content providers like to call “Intellectual Property.” I believe that, if we legally purchase it, we buy the right to own it, use it, rent it, and sell it as we see fit – again, a doctrine which falls comfortably under First Sale.

If we rent it, it’s with the understanding that the financial principles are fundamentally different: we don’t own the product; we simply have the right to use it for a specified period of time, in an extraordinarily specific way, and for a LOT less money (typically ~$5.00).

If we license the product, we have a reasonable expectation that our rights to the product lay somewhere in between owning and renting. We certainly don’t own it, but the restrictions on use and for how long as Draconian as with a rental. Price is typically about half as much as those who outright own the product (typically ~$30.00).


When it came to the battle on PIPA and SOPA, some Image creators spoke up, while the publisher was silent, we reached out to numerous publishers with a few such as 215 Ink and Fantagraphics siding with consumers and against the draconian legislation.

Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson told Wired:

My stance on piracy is that piracy is bad for bad entertainment. There’s a pretty strong correlation with things that suck not being greatly pirated, while things that are successful have a higher piracy rate. If you put out a good comic book, even if somebody does download it illegally, if they enjoy it then the likelihood of them purchasing the book is pretty high. Obviously we don’t want everybody giving a copy to a hundred friends, but this argument has been around since home taping was supposedly killing music back in the ’70s, and that didn’t happen. And I don’t think it’s happening now.

Again and again, numerous studies have showed that pirates purchase more media and entertainment than non-pirates. As a site we believe that DRM actually purchases legal purchasers more-so than pirates and that the more options consumers have, the better. While the publisher might be taking this bold stance, the creators they represent don’t necessarily agree. Numerous creators have a strong stand against piracy, stating it directly takes money and food from them. Will creators be able to opt-out of this new store if they are uncomfortable with DRM free product?

Stephenson continued in the article:

Piracy is not going to stop; everybody’s doing a completely ineffectual job of stopping it now, and I don’t think that this is going to add to it… Now that the technology has caught up to us, then the attitudes and the opinions [in the industry] have to catch up as well. And that takes time, because it’s a shift in the paradigm. There are a lot of people who still don’t quite understand it.

We’ll be keeping a lookout on DMCA notices and other moves by Image when it comes to piracy going forward and if this move will increase the availability of digital Image Comics and the affect on sales.


This is a great first start by Image, but the devils are in the details, aka Terms of Service. Part 3 will be posted later today.