Unless DC Comics announces a new Plastic Man series written by Evan Dorkin and drawn by Amanda Conner, this will be my favorite news item from this week’s San Diego Comic-Con International: On Thursday, ComiXology announced a new feature that allows customers to download off-site, non-DRM’d backups of the digital comics they’ve purchased.
This has been a sticking point for a small, but not-at-all silly, percentage of comics fans.
Previously, ComiXology stressed the advantages of cloud-based reading. A reader could download parts of his or her library for offline reading, but the comics never left the limited, walled garden of the mobile app. Access to hundreds or even thousands of dollars’ worth of purchases hinged on ComiXology’s continued existence and the good faith of the company’s user agreements.
It seems unlikely that a company owned by Amazon will go under or do something to force users to buy a comic twice. But anything can happen. I refer you to the recent documentary about a global pandemic that wipes out all but a handful of humanity, and leaves the planet in control of a race of superintelligent apes whose main post-genocide priority isn’t “maintaining ComiXology’s servers.”
OK, yes, I’m being silly. “Ownership of things you’ve paid for, even if it’s just electrons” is nonetheless an important principle. I still own and reread many comics that I first bought 20 years ago. I rely on these dead treeware editions because they probably won’t ever be reprinted and won’t ever appear in legit digital libraries. Either the publishers went under during the Clinton administration, or they’re based on licensed properties, or they’re just too esoteric for Marvel or DC to revive. My “ownership” of these yellowing comics is crucial to my ability to continue to enjoy them.
So the ability to backup all of your ComiXology purchases to your own hard drive is very nice.
What makes ComiXology’s announcement spectacular is how they’re doing it: Your backed-up comics are completely free of digital rights management, or DRM, restrictions.
Furthermore — and this provoked me to reread the news release to make sure I got it right — backed-up comics are downloaded as plain-jane files, in universal file formats that many third-party mobile and desktop apps can read. Any document or comic reader that supports PDF or CBZ (the community standard for DRM-free comics) files will be able to read your ComiXology backups.
You could even dispense with the ComiXology reader entirely if you wished. In doing so, you would lose ComiXology’s unique “guided view” reading feature, which makes it easy to navigate a complex page of storytelling on a phone or mini tablet screen. Nonetheless, the comic pages will be exported at ComiXology’s full original resolution.
Backups will be available through the user’s account at ComiXology.com. The backup feature is potentially available applies to all comics in a user’s library (even past purchases). However, backups of a specific title won’t be available unless its publisher has approved it.
ComiXology’s existing licensing restrictions apply to the exported PDF and CBZ files. So they’re still, technically, not your property. You’re not free to sell these files to someone, as you could if you had purchased physical comics. But there are no new restrictions prohibiting you from copying these files to your private Dropbox folder, copying them to your home server, or putting them on every device you own simultaneously.
I was told about this news ahead of the formal announcement, and was able to ask ComiXology CEO David Steinberger a few questions about how all of this would work.
Andy Ihnatko: Can you give me an idea of the bottlenecks that prevented ComiXology from making this move until 2014?
David Steinberger: It just wasn’t the right time. Publishers weren’t interested in it.
Andy: Is there a strategy to make exportable comics “the norm” at ComiXology? I see from the release that publishers have to come on board. … I’m trying to get a bead on what to expect in six months to a year. It’d be lovely, of course, to see the ComiXology store become like iTunes, where non-DRM is just assumed.
David: It’s up to the publishers to participate or not. It’s a feature available to them. We still think the best way to read your books is in the ComiXology app and website. No hard drives needed; no file management needed; we don’t have to teach you how to load up the files into your tablet or phone, and the site and apps are by far the best experience. This is a backup, only.
Andy: Is it an “all or nothing” proposition for publishers? That is, can a publisher hold back some titles from exportability, or only enable that feature for part of their published library?
David: It is not all or nothing. Publishers can choose the series that are available for backup. Many publishers have licensing deals with various restrictions, so we want to provide flexibility for them to participate when they can.
Back to me, Andy.
I hope that the willingness of some publishers to allow DRM-free backups is a sign of a trend. Locking content purchases to a specific platform and a specific reader has always seemed like a self-defeating idea. Johnny No-Wanna-Pay will always find a way to get copyrighted content illegally. The rest of the audience isn’t offended by the concept of paying creators for their work — or, at the very least, they think a nice digital storefront like ComiXology.com is much easier, safer and more reliable.
So DRM just creates hassles for people who are inclined to do what’s right. If it creates enough hassles, it drives them to the other side. I rip my purchased DVDs and Blu-rays chiefly because I watch my movies via a home streaming server. But also because the only way to skip past that damn anti-piracy warning at the start of the disc is to bypass the copy protection and convert it to a video file!
ComiXology still thinks that the ComiXology app and its cloud-based storage is the best way to read ComiXology content. I agree. But I like the flexibility. I can shelve epic graphic novels such as “Watchmen” or “Hush” inside my iPad’s iBooks app (which supports PDF), alongside other books that take hours to read.
Or, I can integrate ComiXology purchases into great third-party digital comics reader apps. My one complaint about digital comics is that it’s starting to fall victim to “app creep.” My experience is split across four iPad apps: ComiXology for the hundreds of “new this week” comics I’ve bought since the store opened; Marvel Unlimited, necessary to access Marvel’s exceptional all-you-can-eat subscription library of back issues; Dark Horse, because it’s the only major publisher whose content isn’t available through ComiXology; and Comic Zeal by Bitolithic. That’s my favorite reader for non-DRM comics. Marcus Eisenstoek’s ComicRack is my pick for Android and Windows tablets.
I started using Comic Zeal before ComiXology took off. Yes, I used to download comics illegally. But only ones I had already purchased as treeware, and only because ComiXology didn’t exist. T
he app is still important however. These days, I’m almost as likely to buy a self-published comic (via Kickstarter or a creator-owned site) as something from Marvel or DC, so it’s nice that these indie titles get a nice reading experience.
It’d be nice if my comics library were more like my music library. It doesn’t matter where this track came from or how I acquired it: It’s all in the same place and I use the same app to enjoy everything.
ComiXology’s new off-site backup feature isn’t a one-and-done revolution. But it’s certainly a big step forward. We spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars at digital content stores. We ought to be getting stuff “for keeps.” The right to enjoy this stuff in 10 years’ time should be a given. The right to enjoy it through the apps and devices we want is the ideal.