About a year ago, a new comic app called DailyComix launched for the Android. It was basically a webcomic browser that allowed users to sort through around 100 different titles. Users could mark favorites as well as discover new titles they might not have heard of before. The app came in two flavors: one version that sold for $1.99 and another that was available for free. They both worked pretty much the same, but the free version was supported by advertisements in the app. It seemed like a pretty nice package for webcomic fans.
Except, of course, that the author was stealing all of the content.
Chris Hanel exposed the story earlier this week, noting that despite some lip service to supporting the original copyright holders, DailyComix publisher Klaymore had not actually gotten permission to use any of the webcomics in the app. The content was being “scraped” from the respective sites and reconfigured for use in DailyComix.
The process of scraping has been around for many years, and is largely frowned upon. The basic idea is that a programmer can write some code to copy only portions of a web page that they want, and put that portion in the context of an entirely different site. Technology has actually made this particularly easy in recent years, as many RSS feeds are specifically designed to allow users to format the content as they choose and many webcomic publishing applications use standardized file naming conventions, often based on the date, which allows programmers to accurately predict what future comic files will be named.
An analog variation on the idea might be: a person buys a newspaper every day to read Garfield. Then they grab a pair of scissors and cut the day’s strip out and set it aside. At the end of the week, they take all seven strips and paste them on one sheet of paper, which they then make hundreds of photocopies of. If they then sell those copies, they are effectively profiting from work they have no legal right to profit from. The newspapers were the ones who paid to reprint Garfield, and that right does not transfer to someone who buys one of their papers. Even if the papers were given away for free, that wouldn’t give anyone the right to reprint those Garfield strips.
Jim Davis is the undisputed owner of Garfield. He’s allowed to do whatever he likes with the strip. He can choose to sell it or give it away, or make animated cartoons based on it. Or nothing at all. But if someone else tries to make money by using Garfield without Davis’ permission, Davis has ever right to sue the person who’s trying to make money using his intellectual property.
This has been established so that people who come up with new, creative (and potentially lucrative) ideas are encouraged to continue to do so. If anybody could go around selling Garfield comics, or slapping Garfield as a mascot on whatever product they wanted, Davis would have no reason to create anything else. After all, if someone can take make money off his idea, without sharing it with him, why should he bother creating anything else? He might as well steal somebody else’s good idea rather than try to come up with his own.
ComixDaily was doing the same thing. It was taking comics from people and making money off them, without sharing any of that profit back with the original creators.
The app was really just a highly specialized RSS reader. Most, if not all, of the comics have RSS feeds available. So how does this app differ from a regular RSS reader that a user could just select some webcomics on their own? To use another analog comparison, think about the audio cassette. You could use audio cassettes to record anything you like: an interview you’re conducting, a series of random ideas you have throughout the day, an original song you wrote, etc. But you could also record other songs from other cassettes. Which would be fine if you were just making a cool mix tape for yourself, but blatantly illegal if you copied whole albums and resold them to other people. There’s nothing inherently illegal with cassette itself; it’s what you do with it.
Likewise, you can use feed readers to bring in all sorts of information into one place. For your own personal use. When you turn around and use those feeds to make a profit from, you’re entering into illegal territory. DailyComix was selling the webcomics equivalent of bootleg Bruce Springsteen albums.
With the attention that Hanel focused on this app, it’s was quickly removed from the Android store. It’s unclear if it was removed by the Android folks themselves or Klaymore, but it is worthwhile to mention that the official Android developer policies include: “Your application shouldn't contain content that displays (via text, images, video, or other media) or links to... Violations of intellectual property rights, including patent, copyright (see DMCA policy), trademark, trade secret, or other proprietary right of any party...” Clearly, there was a policy violation here.
The issue with DailyComix is closed. (It seems unlikely that any of the webcomic creators impacted would go so far as to sue Klaymore.) Whether the app was created out of ignorance or a willful disregard of intellectual property rights, the issue still needs to continue to be discussed so that everybody is aware of what the actual issues at hand are. There will almost certainly be future instances of issues such as this but, hopefully, as people continue to become aware of the problems, it won’t take a full year before someone notices the next infringement.