Delighted to have opened a can of worms over htmlcomics.com and it is indeed a contentious subject. It is, of course, a situation that music has been going through since Napster began, over a decade ago, and that TV and movies go through with torrents and YouTube.
They've both tried to fight against the piracy of their properties and have, in most cases, decided that if you can't beat them, join them. iTunes leads the market by having made the cheap but paid-for downloading of music easier and cooler than scouring the pirates, and have seen an upturn in their profits as a result. (Today EMI posted a technical loss because of outstanding debts, but underneath it was a profit on music sales for the first time in 15 months, mostly from the legal download market).
YouTube, of which I am a big fan and consumer, has thrived on providing material that can't be found elsewhere. A lot of it is copyright but if it wasn't on YouTube it would be unobtainable anywhere. Ever tried to buy a DVD of an Eastenders episode from 1993? Or any Top Of The Pops videos? Or early Tiswas? It's not available commercially cos, even on YouTube where you can see it for free, only 500 people have bothered to watch it. But one of them was me, and I'm grateful for that.
htmlcomics, which I learn today is run by a man who appears to be both a nasty bit of work and a douchebag, has allowed me to find and share comics that I either couldn't find or would have had to scan and put online myself if I wanted to share them, and I came across it after, literally, posting the question "where can I find the comics equivalent of YouTube?". But it raises the same concerns as YouTube & Napster before it, namely is allowing free access to comics a rip off that is going to kill comics?
Well, clearly in absolute terms, yes htmlcomics or any other such site is a rip-off. And it is its scale that makes it so much greater a threat than simply sharing comics with a friend. Just like Napster took the old "Home Taping Is Killing Music" principle and expanded it exponentially, so htmlcomics takes the idea of lending your mate a read of your old comics and gone global with it.
Mr Html defends himself by comparing it to a library, and it is a good argument. You get to browse a scan, but supposedly you can't download it (I couldn't, but someone posting here said they could, and I bet you can). And I would like to take a moment to defend that notion. With a library, you get one read of a book, for free, then you rarely if ever look at that again. Wouldn't we want, in an ideal world, every single comic that's ever existed to be available in a library? So, now that it is, why do we object?
The argument against that is, of course, that comics are a business, they are our livelihood, and by allowing people to read our comic for free you destroy our livelihood. This is a very good argument, and I can't refute it. I, for example, read the final issue of Watchmen on htmlcomics on Wednesday night. That's pretty damning considering that's Dave Gibbons' pension I'm eroding. And even though I already own three copies of Watchmen in various formats, that's only cos I'm over 40 years old and have worn copies out. There are punters out there who, given the choice of paying a tenner for the book or reading it for free will deny Dave & the publishers any income. That's a big problem.
Users of YouTube have tackled the problem in a number of ways. Some copyright owners (mostly music publishers) have gone down the banning route. So, for example, videos I bookmarked or favourited a couple of years ago (Abba & Andrew Gold are two examples that spring to mind) are now unavailable when I return to them, and film & TV clips appear with their soundtracks removed.
Others have gone with branding and links. So, for example, Michael Jackson's publishers have applied their ads to videos using their music (one of my own, where we put amusing pictures to an MJ track, is here: http://bit.ly/2q4X3 complete with official ad & link). This shows their understanding that the video they've branded attracts new potential buyers, and they suck up to the kids by showing their support to the makers of the new vid.
Others, especially broadcasters, have gone online themselves. Channel 4 and the BBC are major presences on YouTube. They put up so much content themselves that there's now point in bootleggers or pirates doing so. In the case of Dr Who the BBC put up a dozen or so Classic stories which aren't available on DVD, and turn a blind eye to anything that doesn't get too high quality.
Which brings us back to comics. Assuming htmlcomics is only the first of many, should we embrace it or try and stamp it out? As you can guess I'm in the embracing camp. I think we should look to how we can make money, as publishers and creators, from the online environment, and welcome the potential new audience.
Because, while some people talk of online free comics as "killing" the comic business, I find I live in a parallel universe. I work with kids teaching them the joy of comic art and, one day out of every three, I walk into a world where comics aren't threatened by online piracy. Because comics don't exist.
If the kids I teach have read a comic, it's the Beano. If they've heard of a Marvel superhero it's because they've seen the DVD. If they know Iron Man started life as a comic strip I give them a medal. A few of them read Manga, so there's some consolation there. For the Japanese who didn't let their business die by ignoring younger readers until it was too late.
But when my pupils, especially in primary school, see comics, they love them. And I come away from every class with a bag full of increasingly ragged and tattered comics, loved to within an inch of their staples. I need a cheap supply of comics that I can put into their hands to be sacrificially devoured in the cause of comics education, and I get it from the 5 for a quid box from FP, backed up with Doctor Who Adventures & Simpsons that I buy myself and donate to the cause. But am I going to let them paw and destroy my Cerebusses, my Watchmans, my Swamp Things, my 2000ADs? Am I buggery? Whereas if I can get a laptop and a whiteboard (and I now find, in most schools, I can) I now have an online database that allows me to pick up on whatever they've just said and direct them to a comic that they'll appreciate.
I'm told the comics that I have been browsing and showing to kids are available "at a price". Even my Star Trek strips from 1996? And my one-off Werewolf strip from Marvel's Midnight Sons Unlimited? And my Beano serials? If so, I've not noticed the royalties rolling in. And as for facsimile pages of colour Jack Kirby FFs and Barry Smith Conans and original Will Eisner Spirit newspaper sections, if they are available I'm betting they'll cost more than their creators ever dreamt anyone would ever spend on them, and those creators (or their living counterparts) won't see a penny of the money anyway.
Still thinking this through, but I feel comics archived online must come about, through some officially sanctioned means, otherwise we can forget ever building a new audience of comic readers.