While the relative merits of digital distribution continues to be batted about in regards to how it can affect brick and mortar comics retailers, one area that comic shop owners seem to agree on and will take action against is online comics piracy. And as the most recent crackdown against the most notorious illegal comics site, HTMLcomics.com, heated up on April 20 with the FBI's warrant on site owner Gregory Hart and confiscation of his servers, some of the most vocal industry retailers were already well on their way to pitching in to the anti-piracy efforts.
Jud Meyers recalled the exact moment when the whole digital piracy picture fell into place for him at the ComicsPRO summit on March 25-27
"All the publishers were talking about how they were putting into place different scenarios and teams that would police their content and their properties on the internet," the proprietor of the Calfornia retailer Earth-2 Comics told CBR News. "One retailer had his laptop open and he got on the microphone, and he said, 'I typed in one of the titles you just mentioned, and the first website that came up is your company, the second is Amazon, and three through twelve are Bittorrent sites.'"
While some publishers and creators, as well as the FBI, were already preparing actions before the summit, the gathering provided an opportunity to spread the word about what Hart was up to. This was more informal discussion than grand plan, said Joe Field, the president of ComicsPRO and the owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California. "I know there was some trading of information of what was up on that site and what publishers were involved and what HTMLcomics was doing to try to skirt the issue," he said. Because the summit brought retailers and publishers together in the same room, it allowed them to focus on the issue, and the conversation continued at the Diamond retailer summit in Chicago the following month. "When all the parts of the business get together, with retailers and publishers in Memphis and retailers with Diamond and other suppliers in Chicago, there are things that do get talked about that may have been on the to-do list for the publishers but get a much higher ranking on the to-do list based on the feedback they get from their retailers," Field said.
Meyers said he first became aware of HTMLcomics.com at the ComicsPRO meeting. "I found out about it from another retailer," he said. "I had heard talk of a site and a guy who had been doing something like this but I didn't know the exact name of the site and like everyone else, I didn't pay much attention. We are all busy doing business."
Once he knew specifically about the site, though, Meyers spread the word. "All I did was do a lot of talking," Meyers said. "I just opened up dialogue with people and felt hey, everybody has a right to know. And amazingly, they are not looking out their window to see what the weather is."
There were two things that set HTMLcomics.com apart from other sites, Meyers explained: the quality of the scans that were available and the attitude of the owner. "The reader was very nice, hi-res images, he had issues on there going way back to the Golden Age that other people didn't have, and he had them all in one place in alphabetical order, searchable by creator and issue number," Meyers said. "This guy had done a lot of work on it. It wasn't 'Hey here are some pages from comics,' it was comprehensive.
"And it was out in the open. When creators and publishers came to him and asked him to stop, he was aggressive. He sent threatening letters, he used language that was inflammatory, he really challenged everyone. And from what we know now of other things he did, that was part of his personality that seems to have caught up with him. He was very good at what he was doing and he was very, very vocal about 'Come get me.'"
Hart argued that his site was not infringing copyright because it was a library, allowing people to read the comics online but not download them to keep. He also stated online that the publishers wouldn't bother him as long as he stuck to older works. "Both Marvel and DC leave me alone as long as I stay six months behind," he said in an interview on April 12, eight days before his operation was shut down.
What Hart didn't seem to realize, Field said, is that publishers make quite a bit of money off their backlist, and his site was cutting into that. Furthermore, for a company like Marvel, which was recently purchased by Disney, the value of the intellectual property goes beyond the comics themselves. "If you look at the Marvel-Disney deal, that was not a deal for a publisher, that was a deal for a licensor of boys' toys," said Field. Piracy diminishes the value of the work and therefore of the licensed products that are derived from those works.
Even before the summit, both Colleen Doran and Harlan Ellison had sent takedown notices to Hart and received aggressive responses, and that may have made a difference too. "When you are picking a fight and you are fighting with some of the nicest people in the industry, some of the most special people, it's not just that they are going to fight back, it's that all of their friends are going to get pissed off," said Meyers. "That's what happened. It was the perfect storm, and a hell of a lot of people got mad at the same time. You get hit with ten cease and desist orders at the same week, someone is paying attention."
Meyers thinks the FBI and some publishers were already looking at Hart. "I believe the FBI was involved a long time ago," he said. "I believe there are things that we as an industry have no idea about that were going on with this guy and I think what it took was a well placed phone call to the right person from someone in the industry who is high enough to have gotten their attention. That got the ball rolling in the end game and brought things together."
While HTMLcomics.com is gone, Meyers feels that now that publishers realize the possibilities, they may come up with a legitimate replacement in the future. "I was shocked at the number of people, the number of high level creators and publishers who don't pay attention and think it's just a shitty little site, some guy sitting in the basement somewhere," said Meyers. "And then they look at a site like that and what do the publishers say? 'Oh my God, this guy is giving away our product for free!' And then they say 'Why don't we have a site like this? Why don't we hire this guy? We should have someone like this to do this for us.' I guarantee you, sometime in the next 12 to 24 months, you are going to see big publishing companies put up sites like this with great hi-res images and good readers and you are going to pay for it."