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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.

DriveThru Comics on Being DRM Free Since 2005

With all the comics blogosphere abuzz about Image‘s decision to go DRM free, we reached out to DriveThru Comics for a statement. The digital comics platform has been DRM free, and offering publishers that option for almost a decade.

Matt McElroy who works for the company had this to say.

It is true that we’ve been DRM free since 2005 and while we do offer publishers an optional watermarking service for their PDF files, it is not a requirement and publishers can choose whether to use it or not as they see fit for their comics. Also, while PDF is still the most popular format on our site, we’ve carried CBZ, ePub and other formats if the publisher has those files available. We’re thrilled to work with publishers big and small and we have a special love for creator owned properties.

While Image might be the highest profile and biggest publisher to date, many others, including DriveThru have been pioneering for years when it comes to this.

drive thru logo

SLG Has Been Doing it For Years….

Earlier today we began to report on Image Comics‘ decision to go DRM free and the hyperbolic and factually incorrect reporting that went along with it. From the original Wired piece.

It has also essentially prevented the comic book readership (or at least, the legal comic book readership) from truly owning any of the books they buy. At least until this morning, when comic book publisher 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.

Except that isn’t true and Dan Vado, owner of SLG Publishing spoke out about that on Facebook.

Dan Vado SLG Publishing DRMThat’s on top of DriveThru Comics which is a DRM free digital platform (though they do mark the bottom of PDFs with a unique identifier), 215 Ink, Archaia, Top Cow (an Image imprint) and the numerous other creators who have been doing this exact same thing for years.

Image Expo 2013: Image Drops the Mic & Gives the Middle Finger Part 1

During Image Expo yesterday, Image Comics dropped the mic and raised a middle finger to others when it comes to digital comics. The publisher announced they’d start selling comics directly through the newly revamped Image Comics website. The bombshell was that these comics would be DRM free, snubbing their nose at digital comic industry leader comiXology as well as iBooks and other digital comic platforms. Readers can also choose the file format they prefer: PDFs, EPUBs, CBRs or CBZs. The comic blogosphere was quick to praise without really diving into the details.

The announcement was followed up with a puff piece on Wired.com which I normally expect good tech journalism from. Instead the article begins with an incorrect and misleading title, “For the First Time, You Can Actually Own the Digital Comics You Buy.” The fact is, this isn’t the “first time” this option has been available. The article by Laura Hudson overlooks DriveThru Comics which has been a DRM free platform that has existed for over a decade (comics has been about 7 or 8 years) and offers some Image Comics (Top Cow is often featured). By claiming Image is “the first major U.S. publisher” to offer this is a slap in the face of DriveThru, Top Cow, Archaia and others who offer their comics through that service and clearly haven’t received the attention or praise they deserve.

But, that “exclusive” article is little more than an extended press release that treads more in fear than facts and goes nowhere near actual questions and details. Things we as fans, and most importantly consumers, need to know when weighing how and where to spend our dollars.

Working in the tech sector, I thought it’d be nice to dissect this move by Image weighing the good and bad. We were an early voice in the arena of digital comics having brought up issues when it comes to ownership of digital comics in 2011. And having consistently fought for consumer rights (*cough* SOPA and PIPA *cough*), this only seemed appropriate.


The Supreme Court recently ruled on the First Sale Doctrine which gives us the right to resell legally purchased items. Looking through the Terms and Conditions I found nothing on this or addressing ownership, the digital store was sparse with details. As I “own” these digital comics, just like a print edition, I should be able to resell the digital copy. And when I do that, what then? Do I need to delete my digital copy?

This is a very important question because if the answer is “no” then I don’t really own the digital copy and this announcement and praise is a bit exaggerated. We’ve followed up with Image Comics to clarify this point and will update this article when we receive a response.

The only terms and conditions we found were for the Image website. They’ll need to lay out exactly the digital rights we as purchaser get when we make a digital purchase. Anything short of allowing us to lend, trade, or resell is in fact not “ownership” and is in reality limited digital rights.


The Image website terms of service covers all items under the Image website, which would most likely include their Digital Comics store which resides at https://www.imagecomics.com/store/comics. The terms of service states:

All information contained within ImageComics.com is protected under U.S. copyright laws. All rights reserved. ImageComics.com’s content may only be reproduced, without alteration, for distribution in print or electronically if permission has been granted by ImageComics.com. This includes all hidden text displayed within our source code.

Since the store falls under the website, then digital comics would count as content. Therefore it flies in the face of the First Sale Doctrine and true ownership. Selling the digital copy could be construed as “distribution.” The claims made in the Wired article are exaggerated and hyperbolic in nature.


We in fact do not “own” these digital copies in the traditional sense that we do physical printed copies. We most likely can’t resell these comics on eBay or lend them to friends or give it away. But, having gone through the purchasing process myself, there is no terms stated at the time of the purchase, so all I can go off of are those of the website which haven’t been updated to reflect this new offering.

We’ve reached out to Image for comment, but so far we’re looking at a lot of hype that’s not backed up by facts.

Be on the lookout for Part 2 later today.

Around the Tubes

My first day at Comic-Con is complete and I’m still processing the first day. For now though, here’s news you might have missed.

Around the Blogs:

Bleeding Cool – Peter Panzerfaust To Be A New BBC TV ShowAwesome to hear.

The Beat – SDCC 2012: iVerse Adding DRM-Free Option and Creator ToolsInteresting.

The Beat – SDCC 2012: iVerse Starts Their Own Comics-Specific Crowdfunding (Think Kickstarter) PlatformAlso interesting.

Market Watch – Archie Comics Co-CEO Sees the Comic Book as a Viable Tool for Education in Building Literacy and a Love of ReadingFiled in the duh category.

Arts Beat – A Politics-Free Zone at Comic-ConPretty funny stuff.

IGN – Director Departs Daredevil RebootI want this movie to be done so well.

UpStart – Comic-Con means business for startups – A lot of fresh businesses and faces this year.

Around the Tubes

It’s new comic book day…. What’s everyone getting?

Around the Blogs:

Comics Alliance – New York Comic Con Merges With Anime Convention, Could Lose Javits CenterStill a great show.

Wizkids – Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope DVD and HeroClix Exclusive Combo PackI want!

Bleeding Cool – ComiXology Tracked Reddit DownloadersDRM battles come to comic books.

Bleeding Cool – Diamond Lays Off Three, Raises Questions Over Diamond DigitalOuch, guessing it’s not going so well.


Around the Tubes Reviews:

MTV Geek – Doctor Who/Star Trek: The Next Generation – Assimilation 2 #1

ComicM!x – Super Spy

DC Universe Online, Purchase at Your Own Risk?

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DC Universe OnlineThe President of the Entertainment Consumers Association, Hal Halpin, in a guest editorial on IGN takes on DC Universe Online which has made news for its licensing of the game, like PC games, rather than ownership, which is usually the case with console games (the game is available on the Playstation 3).

The game’s DRM limits the ability to rent, trade, or sell the video game after purchase.  With each disk comes an activation key, and you must use that key to load the game.  By doing so it connects the key with the Playstation account that the key was activated with.  This “locking” of the activation key prevents the game to be used with any other account other than the original account is was loaded with.

While this is common with PC games, it’s new for console games and the fact is this wasn’t disclosed on the packaging.  The PC game also retails for $10 less than the console game.  As a non-PC gamer and new to MMOs this fact and process was new to me, and even though I don’t sell back my used games the inability to do so makes me less inclined to pay for one in the future and the lack of transparency also makes me feel one has pulled over me.  Also, I contemplated switching to a new Playstation Network ID.  If I do so, I’d no longer be able to play the game I purchased.

As Halpin points out:

Console gamers were almost instantly up in arms about the perceived deception, as there was no disclosure about the required PSN key or license limitations on ownership and use. PC gamers on the other hand, were decidedly less offended and perhaps even feeling a little vindicated, thinking, “Welcome to the party!” The issue at first seemed like a non-issue from their perspective: MMOs have always been single use DRM locked games, so what’s the problem? The problem, of course, is that console games are sold and the ownership conveyed, along with rights. That’s one of the reasons that licensed products have a lower value proposition. In this case, the PC version of DC Universe Online sells for ten dollars less than the PS3 version.

Many were caught off guard by this.  No where on the outward facing packaging informs you it’s not a “traditional” console game.  In fact after reading through the entire terms of service there’s no mention the activation key is locked to one PSN account.  In fact there’s explicit language about the pre-order bonus and that you can only download it to one account.

The ECA is running a poll to see how this might affect people’s decisions about purchasing the game.  You can take the poll here.

Full disclosure: Brett Schenker consults for the Entertainment Consumers Association
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