To Steal, Or Not to Steal?
When I was 17 or 18, I stole some records from a local store. I didn't actually intend to steal them. I mean, I didn't know I was going to steal them. But that's what happened.
I had a friend who worked at the store, which was only a couple miles from my house. It was a department store called Caldor. Long gone now, replaced by a Burlington Coat Factory. It's where most of my childhood toys came from, the Mego superheroes and Star Trek figures, the Micronauts. When I outgrew toys, it's one of the places I went for books. It's where I bought my first Stephen King novel, a paperback version of "Christine" because "The Dead Zone" was out of stock. I also bought music there: vinyl albums until this new thing called CDs became prevalent.
One summer afternoon I was in Caldor, and picked out four or five albums, and maybe a paperback book or two. My friend Nick happened to be working the register in the music department. He rang up my purchases, which should've totaled $40 or so. But Nick's register rang up something like $3 and change. Not being real quick on the uptake, I told Nick that wasn't right, because I'd gotten way more than--
He cut me off, glancing around shiftily, and told me, "No, that's right. But you might not want to hang around the store for too long after you pay."
Oh. Okay. I got it. I paid my couple of bucks, Nick put my "purchases" in a plastic bag, and I walked out of the store. I'm not proud of the ethical lapse. And I'm even less proud that I went back the next week and did it again, this time with a bigger stack of albums and books.
I wish I could tell you that my conscience finally got the better of me, so I stopped the gravy train of nearly-free music and books. And to a certain extent, it did. I knew what I was doing was wrong, even if it was being facilitated by someone else. I didn't like feeling that way. But being completely honest, I also heard that the store detective -- basically, a lady passing herself off as a shopper, but actually keeping an eye out for shoplifters -- was aware something was up. The next time I went into the store, I told Nick to charge me the full price; if I wanted something, I'd pay for it. He shrugged and said "Okay." He said "okay," but what he meant was "Okay, but you're crazy."
Turns out I wasn't the only person to whom Nick was giving a "discount." Later in the summer, Nick and another guy who worked at the store (and whom I also knew from high school) were busted for stealing. Taken away in cuffs, the whole bit. Ultimately, it didn't amount to much. They paid some restitution, did some community service, and walked away. Mostly, I think Caldor wanted to scare the rest of the employees into toeing the line.
I'd never stolen anything before. Not a candy bar, not a pack of Topps "Star Wars" cards, nothing. And I've never stolen anything since. That includes music, movies or anything else that be downloaded for free from pirate sites.
Not even a film like "Solomon Kane," based on the Robert E. Howard character who is, for me, a better creation than Conan. I desperately wanted to see writer-director Michael J. Bassett's film, but it did not get a release in the U.S., either theatrically or on DVD. I'm sure I could've found a torrent in less time than it takes to type this sentence, and downloaded it. But I didn't, for the simple reason that it's wrong. It's not mine to take, and no amount of weak-ass justifications would make it any less wrong:
"I'd buy a copy, but it's not available in the U.S." Tough shit. Wait.
"I'll buy the DVD when it comes out, I promise." Tough shit. Wait.
"I'm just taking it from some huge corporation, they can afford it." Not your call to make, Holden Caulfield.
"I'm not stealing anything, I'm just making a copy." You want to split hairs, go to beauty school. You're taking something that doesn't belong to you.
"It's the same as the library." No, it's not, stupid. A library lends out one copy (which it purchased) at a time, to one person at a time. A library does not make an infinite number of copies to be shared by an infinite number of users.
"But I really want it!" Grow up.
Look, I'm not delusional. I know the genie's out of the bottle, and it's never going back in. The age of "I wanted it, so I took it" is here. There's very little to be done to stem the tide. I see it in some of my oldest son's friends. They're so used to taking whatever they want, whenever they want, it doesn't even occur to them that it's wrong. They're not bad kids; they just can't make the intellectual leap to understanding that even a digital copy is someone's work (usually a lot of someones), and they deserve to be paid for that work.
I know with certainty that virtually any work of mine will be available to be pirated on the day it hits comic stores. If someone wants it, and doesn't feel like paying for it, it's there for the taking. In a lot of cases, I and the artists have been paid by the publisher for our work. Certainly many people who download a comic would never pay for it. But in a business like this, with razor-thin profit margins for publishers as well as retailers, if even 10% of downloads are lost sales, that's significant. Yes, creators are paid by publishers in work-for-hire scenarios, but less money for publishers ultimately means less money for creators. Page rates paid to creators are being cut, not going up. And royalty payments to creators are obviously tied directly to sales.
In a creator-owned situation, like my own "Shinku," any lost sale impacts the creators directly. Believe me, finding out how many people have illegally downloaded an issue of "Shinku" is a swift kick to the nuts for the entire creative team. Most creator-owned books are done for free -- no advance, no page rate. Any money the creators see is on the back end, directly from sales. Every lost sale hurts.
Yes, I've heard endless stories about endless comics that amount to: "...but after I downloaded it, I liked it enough that I went out and bought it." That's nice, but it's not a viable excuse for taking something that's not yours, it's an after-the-fact justification. Nobody talks about all the books they downloaded and didn't go out and buy.
Don't misunderstand, I think a free sample is an awesome marketing tool. Probably even a necessary marketing tool these days. All I ask is that the owners/creators of the material be allowed to make that decision, not some guy in his basement with a scanner and too much time on his hands. There are plenty of creators and/or publishers offering up material for free, and who even want you to spread torrents: Mark Waid's Thrillbent line, and Top Cow's "Cyber Force" relaunch, to name two.
My philosophy is simple: if it's not mine, I don't take it. I'm vocal about it in person or on Twitter, not because I expect my stance to have any real impact, but because I think it's the right thing. People making music or films or books or comics deserve to be paid for their efforts. It's the height of entitlement to think I somehow deserve to access those efforts without fair compensation... whether it's walking out of a department store with records years ago, or snatching up pirated comics today.
By the way, I saw "Solomon Kane" on television in New Zealand when I was there earlier this year. Pretty entertaining film. According to Michael J. Bassett's blog, "Solomon Kane" becomes available on Video on Demand tomorrow, Aug. 24. Good things come to those who wait, yeah?
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" for Top Cow, "Prophecy" for Dynamite and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.