So I was asked to deliver the keynote speech at the Harvey Awards this year. And I worked hard on it. Really hard. Notecard set after notecard set, document after document, draft after draft. Because I’d chosen a topic that I’m practically evangelical about, the tough part wasn’t coming up with stuff to say--the tough part was winnowing down the number of ideas. I went through an entire pocket notebook’s worth of paper writing and re-writing right up until my cue to speak. And that’s because I wanted to hit a home run. I really, really wanted to knock it out of the park in front of my peers.
And I didn’t.
I was uncharacteristically nervous, and it showed. I just listened to a partial recording, and while it was probably a solid double and not nearly as botched as I want to remember, to my ears, that speech was an absolute train wreck. I joked a few times about it being “a vodka-fueled rant” to cover my nervousness, but now that I listen to a playback, I get why some of the people in the room were ready to throw a punch: I didn't hit the points hard enough that I'M NOT SAYING WE SHOULDN'T GET PAID and I’M NOT ARGUING AGAINST OWNERSHIP. I did say those things, more than once, but not often enough and not at all in the back half of the speech, and I’m pretty sure that’s how I lost some of the audience, because I went off on tangents about sharing, and tangents are really dangerous territory when your speech doesn’t even begin until nearly 10:00 at night.
Worse, at least one audience member misinterpreted my speech as suggesting we should do away altogether with copyright and ownership and disagreed aggressively, and while that wasn’t at all what was said, if my message was misheard, I regret that profoundly and apologize to the listeners.
But while I may have fumbled the delivery, I’m still proud of the content (and would like it stated for the record that at no time did I “defend piracy”; seeing my speech reported as such really misses the point.) There is no written text, so no official transcript exists thus far, but Jonah Weiland has invited me to CBR to re-deliver the reconstructed speech to all (with its points better organized--I’m less nervous at a keyboard than I am with Jerry Robinson and Denny O’Neil staring expectantly back at me, go figure), so ready the tomatoes....
I’ve been asked a lot to speak about digital, because it’s such a passion with me and I’m such an advocate. But saying “Let’s cheer for digital comics!” seems kind of mundane. I want to talk tonight instead about how we fret about downloads and "piracy" and their impact. How we’re in danger because people are breaking copyright. But, first, let's talk a little about copyright and its history.
What most people don’t realize about copyright is that it was originally conceived to protect not artists but the public domain--to ensure that artists and writers and their heirs couldn’t have perpetual ownership of their work until the end of time because, at some point, the sentiment went, you ought to have to give back to culture the same way you, I, and all artists draw from it. Certainly, you should benefit from your work, and you should have legal protection, but I find it interesting that the original intent was to deliver ides back into the public domain.
Then, three hundred years ago exactly this year, publishers co-opted the copyright concept to create what are the foundation of today's copyright laws--but even then, they existed not to protect creative folks but, rather, publishers and printers. Copyright was about making sure no one could bootleg the printed work and compete with legitimate, licensed printers. It was about protecting distribution. Public domain was still seen as important, however, because no one then or now can argue that Western civilization would be better if Shakespeare's heirs still controlled his works and they couldn't be read in schools without payment, or if you had to pay a fee every time you wanted to even look at a Degas. Culture is more important than copyright.
That copyright system, however imperfect, worked for centuries. It was a decent balance of copyright and culture--you were allowed to profit from your work during your lifetime, your heirs even got many years' grace period afterwards, and then it all went back into the pool of public domain at some point long after you were dead. But for the past several decades, megacorporations have turned copyright into a perpetual revenue machine for them that will never end and never expire. That's great for individual copyright holders who draft off of that momentum, but it’s lousy for culture. Worse, it's led to a mindset among creators that the only acceptable reward for creativity is dollars and cents...
...but that leaves culture and public domain out in the cold, and again, culture is more important than copyright. No one's saying we shouldn't be compensated for our work, but we are obliged to give back at some point. Moreover--and I know that in hard economic times like these, it's very hard to remember this--I would also offer that being able to contribute to culture, having the satisfaction of knowing that we've done work that is embraced by others, watching our ideas spread and seed new ideas--if you're calculating overall job compensation, that is not without value.
“Yes, Professor Waid, you hippie freak, sharing is all well and good, but how does that pay my bills?”
I know. I know. We all still should be financially compensated for hard work so we can keep doing this and make a decent living. No argument. And that brings us back around to filesharing. If you're genuinely morally indignant about this issue, I understand and respect that. But I worry that a lot of the moral indignation I hear over filesharing is just a way of trying to mask our panic over how our ability to make a living with our art is quickly eroding under the current business models. And I understand that fear. I really, truly do.
Look, if you are in comics just to make money, I can respect that. Honestly, no sarcasm. But if you are here to create a sustainable living for yourself while at the same time finding some way to give back to the world, then filesharing is not a problem...it’s an opportunity.
Like it or not, downloading is here. Torrents and filesharing are here. That's not going away. I'm not here to attack it or defend it--I'm not going to change anyone's mind either way, and everyone in America at this point has anecdotal evidence "proving" how it hurts or helps the medium--but I am here to say it isn’t going away--and fear of it, fear of filesharing, fear of illegal downloading, fear of how the internet changes publishing in the 21st century, that’s a legitimate fear, because we’re all worried about putting food on the table and leaving a legacy for our children, but we’re using our energy on something we can’t stop, because filesharing is not going away.
And I’ll tell you why. It’s not because people “like stealing.” It’s because the greatest societal change in the last five years is that we are entering an era of sharing. Twitter and YouTube and Facebook--they’re all about sharing. Sharing links, sharing photographs, sending some video of some cat doing something stupid--that’s the era we’re entering. And whether or not you’re sharing things that technically aren’t yours to share, whether or not you’re angry because you see this as a “generation of entitlement,” that’s not the issue--the issue is, it’s happening, and the internet’s ability to reward sharing has reignited this concept that the public domain has cultural value. And I understand if you are morally outraged about it and you believe to your core that an entire generation is criminal and they’re taking food off your table, I respect that.
But moral outrage is often how we deal with fear. It’s a false sense of empowerment in the face of fear. And I’m here to tell you, that if at core you’re reacting not out of moral outrage but out of fear of the internet and the whole way publishing seems to be headed--that’s good news. Because that’s something we can fix.
We are the smartest, most creative medium in America. We put out ideas on a periodical basis bam, bam, bam. We don’t put out a screenplay every three years. We don’t invent a TV show every ten years. There are more ideas in one Wednesday in one comic shop than in three years of Hollywood. We're notoriously bad businessmen, but we are unmatched for creativity and inventiveness, and there are ways to make filesharing work for us rather than cower in fear that it’s going to destroy us.
I'm going to be rolling out some ideas in the next few weeks on how I personally want to make torrents work for me, not take away from me, and how I plan to shift the paradigm. Lots of you already have similar ideas or will, as well. I’m not saying that to plug anything I’m doing; I just want to go on record that I’m willing to walk the walk. My ideas may work. They may not work. But I’m going to share them. And if they don’t work, I’m going to keep trying. And I’m going to set up forums by which we can share our ideas on this, and I invite us all to throw them around. I really want us to keep that dialogue open. But we can define the terms of 21st century publishing and not have them defined for us.
I don’t want to be afraid. I don’t want to enter my third decade of my career terrified that publishing’s going down the tubes when we have the power to affect it. In fact, we have the advantage of being able to watch how other media have mismanaged their attempts at digital for ten years and learn from their mistakes. We can--and we will--find ways to make the internet work for us and for the enrichment of culture.