Who Pirating Hurts: Copyrights

A few weeks ago I participated in a forum in which comic book readers weighed in on the ethics of pirating. I couldn’t help but notice a severe misunderstanding as to what rights are ultimately being infringed upon when comic books (or any form of media) are pirated. I hope to shine a bright light in this area to make the topic absolutely clearer during this two-part written excursion.


For starters, the United States Congress is granted the power in the US Constitution “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8. Yes, we used to capitalize everything.) 17 U.S.C. Chapter 1 was passed to enumerate the protections granted to a copyright holder.

And what exactly is a copyright? A copyright is a protection for artistic ideas that have been made available to people. To get one you basically need an original work/idea embedded in a method of tangible expression that can be observed or enjoyed. (Paraphrased very loosely from 17 U.S.C. § 102.)

How do you get a copyright?

Original Work

The Stalk has not helped cure my fear of spiders at all.

The idea must be an original. In our comics context, let’s take Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s “Saga.” I can’t envision anybody who reads it being able to point to any other media source and say: “Direct rip-off of such-and-such!” I mean, where else are you going to find an oddly sexy death-dealing spider lady? You could probably divine influences from certain aspects of the book but can you find these exact characters, exact scenarios, exact everything anywhere else? Nah. No way.

The bar for original expression is pretty freaking low, too. All courts and Congress require is a “modicum of creativity.” Modicums are pretty small. In addition, courts recognize that they are not proper critics for art. Almost anything – almost – can be considered an original idea.

Tangible Expression

The idea must be able to be enjoyed or reviled. Examples of tangible expression include movies, books, music (written and recorded), and even some dance routines. Back to “Saga,” Image prints the book for you to purchase somewhat monthly, as well as an option to collect many stories in one volume via trades. In addition, your computer lets you see the story unfold on many-sized screens.


Lastly, isn’t there some registration that must be done to get the copyright? Nope. Not at all. Work is copyrightable as soon as it is reduced to a form of media. That’s right: As I write this my copyrightable material expands. This very sentence is copyrighted. This next sentence is going to be copyrighted as I write it. Go ahead, join the fun and write down an original thought and enjoy the fact that you have a copyright.

Registration is basically a way to give notice to the world that the owner will sue you into the ground if you even think about stealing their stuff. That © is no joke. Also, if you want to sue for perceived infringement then you need to have registered your work. So, even if “Saga” weren’t federally registered it is still protected by copyright laws. (A look inside each issue shows it is registered while recognizing some fair use rights.)

Despite the disclaimer, this is an example of "fair use."


Since we have tackled the copyright granted to “Saga” (in a very watered down sort of way), what does this copyright get these and any other creators? Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have several rights granted upon putting their work to paper. First, they have the right to make a copy of “Saga.” They have obviously chosen to do so since our wonderful staffers are able to review them. This creative duo also has the right to make derivative works based on “Saga,” which means that they could make the story into a dang movie if they wanted. They also have the right to sell their originals, copies, and derivative works in any legal way they see fit. Lastly, they have the right to publicly display their work. (All taken from 17 U.S.C. § 106.)

Here’s the kicker: These rights are exclusive unless permission is given. You don’t have any of these rights in their work. Say you buy a copy of the first issue. You DO NOT have the right to make a copy to give away to others – like allowing your copy to be pirated/file-shared. (Lending is fine. Sadly, giving out your online account information is not fine. See my blog on digital comic rights.) You DO NOT have the right to come up with different ways of telling the story, like making your own faithfully adapted commercial short film. (Fan fiction and YouTube videos can be interesting exceptions.) You DO NOT have the right to sell copies you make of your bought copy. You can sell your copy. You can trade your copy. You can burn your copy. You cannot sell copies of your copy. You DO NOT have the right to post copies in public – like scanning and posting full pages online. (Which, by the way, is completely against our site rules for users and which the staff can do because they have permission.)

Copyright owners - not faceless victims.

In sum, the creators have the constitutional and statutory right to disperse their work in any way they see fit. Vaughan and Staples have decided to release “Saga” through Image. This is, so far, an exclusive deal. They also release the books digitally online in accord with an agreement Image has with various digital producers and peddlers. Anything you do that goes against these enumerated laws is infringing upon the rights of the creators. Screw the bottom line – you are taking rights away that are to solely belong to the team of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.

Edited by pikahyper

Technically CBSi has the copyright on everything you just wrote :P

Posted by Renchamp

@pikahyper: Yup. That's the joy of posting on a website. But, I wrote this on my computer, so when I wrote it I had the copyright all to myself. (Those sentences were true when I wrote them. Ha!)

Posted by pikahyper


Posted by Phoenixgeist

not all pirating is bad :)

Posted by Renchamp
Posted by takashichea

Some countries don't have access to legal goods like my friend in Uganda. I interviewed him for the African American experiences in Anime Vice. He and his folks want to help promote the industry. This deals with both comics and anime. It will take time when companies do venture out to reach fans all over the world.

Posted by JediXMan

Just feel like posting this:

Posted by Renchamp

@jedixman: I like this. It's very logical and forward thinking. Sadly, I am approaching this from a strictly legal stand point. I may have to do a follow-up so as to no sound so, uh, stick-up-the-butt-ish, because I know the perks of online transparency and accessibility. Just read these two blogs with a mind for learning the law as it stands now (which is admittedly archaic).

Posted by Dabee

@renchamp: You seemed to miss a major point. You covered close to all of the "what"s, but you barely even mentioned the "why"s. Copyright was originally a way to ensure benefit on the side of the producer and the consumer. It was a contract between the two, with mutual understandings. The consumer agreed to not copy or reproduce the content, with the understanding that the producer would continue to make new content for their enjoyment. Now it's time for a history lesson:

The first copyright law that resembles what we know today was in 1790, (The Copyright Act of 1790). The producer had the exclusive right to produce and sell their creations for a period of only 14 years. If by the end of this term, they were still alive, they could have one additional 14 years. After that it became public domain.

Fast forward 41 years to the Copyright Act of 1831, which gave creators exclusive rights over their content for 28 years to start, with one additional extension of 14 years should they still be alive.

78 years later we got the Copyright Act of 1909, (starting to notice a pattern here?) and the initial period remained at 28 years, but they now had one additional 28 year period available should they still be alive.

Now let's jump forward 67 years, to the Copyright Act of 1976. Now the author's copyright would last for 75 years, or their life plus 50 years. Now hold on a second, life plus 50 means they keep their copyright after they die. Intellectual property is of the brain, which is dead now. Yet, the copyright still belongs to them. They obviously won't be creating any new content, but yet they keep the copyright. They couldn't care less if their stuff is pirated, they are dead after all, yet they are still protected.

Copyright Renewal Act of 1992. 16 years later. Now you don't have to bother to renew it. It just comes automatically.

Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, life of the creator and 70 years of death. Plus, the same year, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 made copyright a criminal offense. As in, now you could go to jail and be put in the same rooms as murderers and rapists.

As you can see, in this 218 year span, the real purpose of copyright was lost. As you even quote, the original purpose was "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Emphasis on the "to promote the progress of Science and useful Arts." In the early days of copyright, this was true. Copyright existed to promote creation for the mutual benefit of author and reader. Over time, however, the benefit of the readers has been lost. Now, instead of the promise of new content to enjoy, we are put in with murderers and rapists.

Your example of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples is an inherently flawed one. The current state of copyright is not what it is because of the efforts of independent creators such as them. Saga, which is an amazing comic, is the creations of two brilliant people. Comics, which are a relatively small market compared to movies and television, are more affected by piracy. Independent comics even more so. I can definitely see how if a large number of people pirate Saga, the two creators could be negatively affected. However, the copyright law as it stands today was pushed by Hollywood. It was pushed by projects whose creators were to make millions of dollars. It wasn't about promoting the progress of anything anymore, it was about making more money. Rather than twenty-million, they wanted to make forty-million. Now it was about locking those up that want to prevent them from becoming filthy stinkin' rich. Because of piracy, they were only stinkin' rich.

There is also the issue of, "if I don't pirate this, will I really buy it?" In many cases the answer is yes, in many it's no. It's not something that can really be easily measured. Number of piracies, thus, can not be translated to dollars lost. There's also the fact that in music piracy, it's still not possible to pirate the experience of a concert. Whether you buy an album or download it, you will still have the same desire to buy merchandise or attend a concert.

In conclusion, your argument is mostly wrong in that it fails to mention why copyright was originally put in place, and uses a bad example. Copyright was a contract for the mutual benefit of artist and consumer, and has now become a way for the artist (who is no longer an artist, but a large corporation) to bully the consumer into paying inflated prices at the fear of jail time, only so that they can make more millions. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples are not a corporation, they are artists in the traditional sense. They are not a company with a team of lawyers, they are two brilliantly creative minds. They could be affected if thousands pirated their creations, which is why I buy Saga every month. Hollywood would barely notice the affects, but I still give them lots of money. So that is my defense of piracy.

@renchamp said:
Tune in next week when I tackle arguments people make to justify pirating. Spoiler alert: I shoot most of them down. Most.


Posted by kriminal

is it wrong, yes. do I do it, yes. do I feel bad doing it, no. people as a whole are too dumb to stop, so why sell myself short

Posted by PotatoOfDoom

@kriminal said:

is it wrong, yes. do I do it, yes. do I feel bad doing it, no. people as a whole are too dumb to stop, so why sell myself short

Pretty much this. >_>

Posted by danhimself

Lar Ulrich has even reversed his stance on piracy....he says that it's good because it gets the content out to people who would never be able to get a hold of that content without piracy....he says that he talked to kids in foreign countries who were huge Metallica fans and said that they discovered Metallica through piracy and that changed his views on it

Posted by M3th

@danhimself: Didn't Metallica want/did Sue fans for pirating their music?


Posted by danhimself

@m3th said:

@danhimself: Didn't Metallica want/did Sue fans for pirating their music?


sure did and Lars was at the head of the antiNapster stuff...he's changed his tune since then

Edited by Renchamp

@dabee: My post deals with the law as it stands now but I will certainly address your points in the next blog and why they are right and wrong.

Posted by Dabee

@renchamp said:

@dabee: My post deals with the law as it stands now but I will certainly address your points in the next blog and why they are right and wrong.

...why they are right.*