Marvel, Disney and the Intellectual Property of comics
An oft-mentioned aspect of the digital comic discussion at the San Diego Comic Con this year was the role of intellectual property rights, as both a source of revenue for creators but also as victim to widespread comics piracy.Â As with so many popular artistic endeavors, the creators themselves often expressed ambivalent feelings towards intellectual property conceptions, especially in light of technological changes radically undermining the traditional business models of comics publishing.Â Many of the most interesting comic book creators I heard at the Con seemed to recognize that new distribution models, digital comics in particular, could create innovative avenues for exposure and revenue, even if every digital copy was not purchased in the same way a physical comic book would had been.
On the other hand, every publisher I encountered at the Con seemed to have the precise opposite opinion, that physical and digital property required the exact same treatment both legally and economically, despite the fundamental differences between an economy of scarcity and one of ubiquity.Â At one industry insider panel I attended a publisher appealed to comic artists to create characters and stories that above all contained licensing potential, as a way to ensure revenue streams for “you and your family for generations.”Â Needless to say, what I did not hear from many industry representatives was any notion of humility towards the power of intellectual property laws, or a recognition of the incredibly messy history of comic creation and ownership (as the current Superboy lawsuit continues to demonstrate).Â At the same time, it seemed so ironic to me for industry professionals to ignore, at Comic Con of all places, the countless ways in which it was the intense interaction and involvement of the fans themselves that have enshrined comic characters with such value. The power of a Spider-Man does not come, as J.K. Rowling might have it, merely from what the publisher puts out every month, but from the intense embrace fans give him, whether through a hand-made convention costume or through all the online discussions, wikipedia entries, fansites, etc. that have helped to sustain Spidey for the decades since his arrival in 1962 via Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby.
Of course, now that Spider-Man is the property of the Disney, one can only imagine the intellectual property structure that will be enforced around him.Â Not to say Marvel was very progressive in such matters, but there is no one more aggressive and powerful about extending both the terms and the lengths of copyright than the Mouse.Â Which is unfortunate given the state of the digital comics evolution.Â As we discussed in a previous post, unless the comics industry truly begins to loosen its grip and take innovative business models seriously, the rather extraordinary levels of comics piracy will continue with no real alternatives presented.Â With Disney now entering the field in a dominant fashion, I have little optimism, however, even if the creators themselves are interested in expression far more than locking in revenue streams for “generations.”