Thursday, April 08, 2010

You Can't Do That On The Interweb

There's been plenty of online chatter over the last couple of months about htmlcomics, a site that hosts thousands of scanned comic books. The debate is whether or not the content constitutes copyright infringement, and the owner of the site has participated in several of the discussions across the interweb. While coming across as both a weirdo and an asshole, he insists that if libraries don't violate copyright law, then neither does his site. Some people have chosen to accept this argument. Others reject it, but read the comics on the site, anyway. I'm in the third camp. Not only will I not be reading comics he hosts, but I have difficulty believing anyone could be so ignorant about what he's doing.

He claims that the code on his site is written to prevent downloading and saving. That's a crock. The average surfer who doesn't know how to do anything more than right-click and "save as" may not have any luck, but the images can still be saved, and it doesn't take long for more savvy internet users to get past his silly trick (and no, I won't be sharing the how, just as I won't link directly to the site). The guy is a bit too impressed with the "code" he mistakenly believes protects his activity from being classified as distribution. It doesn't matter if the content can't easily be saved, because the act of delivering it to other computers electronically, which is what happens when people view pages on a web site, is by definition distribution.

The meat of his position, however, is The Library Argument. According to him, they make books available for readers, so what he's doing is no different. The Library Argument is patently false, and it doesn't hold water for two very obvious reasons that he failed to consider.

First of all, public libraries are not free. They're "public" because the public pays for them with tax dollars. It's not charity when you go to your local library and check out a book; you pay for that right when you pay local taxes. No public service is free, not libraries, recreational centers, police or fire departments, trash collection, or road construction. The same goes for private school libraries. Tuition helps to fund them, so again, nothing is free. If a collective wanted to build a community comic collection from which they could all read books, and they did it by actually buying the titles they wanted to include, that would work under The Library Argument. This doesn't, and it's not even close.

Secondly, books in libraries are either purchased from publishers or donated, and then the library lends out those books. They do not make copies, digital or otherwise, so they can offer them to more readers. They loan out only books, music, and movies that have been obtained legally. There's nothing illegal about scanning your comics for your own purposes (the clown behind this site even tries to compare what he's doing to backing up ones own collection), but making an archive of a collection freely available to the public is an unequivocal example of copyright infringement. There's no crime in loaning the most recent trade paperback you bought to a pal, but if you made color copies of every page and gave them away, you have infringed on the publisher's rights. When you cheat the publisher, you cheat the creators whose work you claim to enjoy. That's a dick move, period.

The owner of this site claims to have no interest in comic books, and maybe that makes it easier in his mind to justify theft. On the other hand, he's a self-described database developer, so I have to wonder how he'd feel if someone stole his code without compensating him for the work he put into it. You'd think someone in that sort of profession might have a bit more respect for the concept of intellectual property, but that's apparently not the case with this guy.

There's no debate to be had about The Library Argument. It's bogus, and glaringly so. The only thing left to debate is whether or not it's okay to visit the site and take advantage of what he's providing. I've seen the same, tired excuses we always see when this sort of topic arises. "I wouldn't buy it, anyway." If you wouldn't buy it, anyway, then why are you so determined to read it for free? "I'm broke, so I can't afford to pay for comics." Welcome to The University Of Real Life. We have your course schedule ready, starting with Tough Shit 101. I'd like to have lots of things I can't afford. Hell, I'd love to run out and buy one of these, one of these, and one of these right now. The fact that I'm not sitting on thousands of dollars to throw around for luxury items doesn't make it acceptable for me to just help myself to whatever I want. The sense of entitlement some people have can be overwhelming at times.

And yes, the notion that comic book publishers should make available titles that are no longer in print is a legitimate one. If you're not printing it, and you have no intention of printing it in the foreseeable future, you won't be losing any money by hosting digital versions on your web sites. If anything, you'll be providing a valuable service that your fans will appreciate. You might even introduce them to a writer or artist whose work is currently for sale and generate some revenue from the endeavor. So yeah, I understand where people are coming from on this aspect of the debate, but what htmlcomics and people using torrent sites are doing goes so far beyond that.

It all comes down to one very basic idea: If you like the work, then don't be a dick to the creators whose efforts made that enjoyment possible for you.