Image Comics' solution to comic book piracy: remove DRM

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It’s one of the most iconic images in comic book history: Superman bursting free of oversized, heavy steel chains. For more than 70 years, the Man of Steel has been tearing those flimsy and ineffective chains asunder.

And on July 2, Image Comics’ publisher Eric Stephenson helped comic fans everywhere feel a bit more like Superman.

Speaking at Image’s annual Image Expo event, Stephenson declared that—effectively immediately—all digital comics sold through the company’s revamped website would be free of digital rights management (DRM) technology. This decision makes Image the first major comic book publisher to sell its digital content without the chains that have frustrated many readers for years.

To date, most publishers have opted to sell comics through ComiXology, the mobile comic reading application that has (for better or for worse) become something of an industry standard. But comics purchased through the ComiXology app are accessible only through that app, so readers who buy them are actually paying for the mere right to view those comics—not own them. Comics from ComiXology can’t be moved, permanently downloaded, backed up, or read on a device other than those sanctioned by ComiXology. And when ComiXology’s servers crash—like they did in March, when readers swamped the service to nab free content from Marvel—its comics become inaccessible.

Comic book publishers tend to view the ComiXology model as a way to combat piracy. In 2011, when DC Comics rebooted every one of its flagship titles (including Superman), it partnered with ComiXology to begin offering same-day publication of digital comics alongside print ones. Pirates leaked one of the new issues online before the print edition even hit newsstands.

Stephenson is taking a different approach. In a recent interview with Wired, he flatly stated that the antidote to comic book piracy was not stronger restraints, but better comics:

"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."

Equally refreshing were comments from Image's Director of Business Development, Ron Richards.

"There's something to be said for the ownership factor," Richards said. "If readers purchase a book on ComiXology, that may be their library but from what I understand that could be revoked. And God forbid, if ComiXology goes under or their data center has an earthquake all their hard drives go away—then you've got nothing."

Images' digital comics store launched alongside the company's refreshed website, but not all the company's titles are available digitally—yet (The Walking Dead is ready for download without DRM, for example, while Saga isn't). Richards says that Image's entire catalog will eventually be available online—no chains attached.

Bryan Behrenshausen
Bryan formerly managed the Open Organization section of, which features stories about the ways open values and principles are changing how we think about organizational culture and design. He's worked on since 2011. Find him online as semioticrobotic.


Rather timely today: A <em>New York Times</em> <a href="">piece on growing digital comic sales</a> in North America.

It is great that Image Comics is going DRM-free! Their redesigned website is nice, but the search feature seems to be a little wonky. I can only get <a href=""> Brian Wood's Mara</a> to show up by searching for the creators' names!? Typing in Mara doesn't get me the Mara comic, but I do get several results (both series and creators) that contain mar*.

Indeed, things remain a bit wonky. I like to think it's because so many people are flooding the site to buy some DRM-free comics (but I'm an optimist like that). More likely, Image is encountering the same bugs everyone does when transitioning to a new site. Either way, I'm willing to stick with it.

Joshua, have your purchased anything? What are you reading right now?

Haven't purchased anything yet. I'm way too cash strapped to be able to spend money on comic books on a regular basis, but my birthday is this week, so I was hoping to treat myself to the complete run of Mara. Unfortunately, it looks like issue #6 (it is a six issue limited series) has been delayed (again). And, like I stated above, searching for Mara on the site is far harder than it should be. It isn't even listed on the <a href="">"All series"</a> list (which might be why it doesn't show up in the search). I'll probably buy all six issues when issue 6 comes out. The only other comics I'm really reading right now are DC's Wonder Woman and Image's Chew and Saga. It amuses me greatly that the Wreath language, Blue, in Saga is Esperanto. But all three of those comics I read by getting the trades from my local public library.

I feel you. I've been waiting for Image to get its back issues of Elephantmen online, so I can start from the beginning. Though that might take a while.

Baen Books have sold their e-books without DRM from the beginning, and have done well.
They even reported increasing sales for authors where free downloads were provided (as teasers).

<a href="">The Baen Free Library</a> and Baen's online store are a great example of how to do things right. You can even download the free books without having to 'buy' them. Some other sites make the user go through the entire checkout process to 'buy' an item for $0.00. Though the disclaimer at the top of the intro page is a little disappointing: <em>"As a result of our decision to sell our titles at third party vendors, we have had to remove some titles. Others are undergoing alteration and will be brought back into the Library over the next few months."</em>

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