The original title of this post was called "How We Can Beat Comics Piracy" -- but I think, unless you make really draconian laws and basically spy on everybody's Internet, illegal downloading is not going to go away. Indeed, draconian laws and heavy fines seem to only spur some people on, as a form of rebellion. But I think the key is to slow piracy down so it stops being a "commonplace" thing "everybody" does, and push it back to being a fringe activity. For example, when I say that I am buying a comic -- especially a digital one -- I'm often mocked by peers for "wasting my money." The argument goes: if it's so easy to get an illegal scan, why bother paying for the comic? I am in a comics field anyway, so I could just chalk it up to "research." I might even be "helping" the publisher of the comic I torrented.
But I just can't shake the feeling that Comics is too fragile an industry to absorb such a blasé attitude towards illegal torrenting. This is not to say that other industries and forms of media aren't also impacted negatively by piracy. I'm just saying that in a realm where selling 100,000 copies of a single issue constitutes a "blockbuster," 1000s of potential buyers who torrent make all the difference -- especially for critically-acclaimed but lower-selling books.
In a world where fans still prefer to buy the collectible paper "artifact" rather than a digital copy, this is not as big an issue. But when in 2-5 years when digital comics become far more commonplace -- perhaps even the "norm" -- comic pirating may actually break this industry.
But there are things that can be done to fix things before they get to that point:
1) Make "legitimate" digital comics cheaper
I'm not talking about making them super-cheap, because the publishers need to make a profit in order to keep functioning. But I suggest keeping new releases a maximum of $2.99 the first week and $1.99 the second week. Then all back-issues 99 cents. I've bought a lot of back-issues on sale for 99 cents, and it really is the "sweet spot" in terms of encouraging bulk and returning purchases.
2) Offer more free comics to sample
Nothing gets a person new to comics and/or digital comics interested in a service like comiXology than offering free first issues to sample on their reading device of choice. DC does this with some of their titles, and it's a great incentive to start buying. Also, the search phrase "free online comics" is extremely popular -- for obvious reasons. Digital publishers should take advantage of that SEO!
3) "Shame" casual downloaders
I'm not talking about the hardcore comics pirate who couldn't give a darn about what I or anyone else thinks regarding this issue. I'm talking about friends and acquaintances who illegally download comics -- especially those who clearly make enough money to put down that extra $3.99 for this week's issue if they really wanted to. If this topic comes up with them, just politely say that you don't really support piracy because you believe it hurts the industry. That's it. No fighting, no belaboring the point. Just give your opinion on the subject, and move on. I believe simply speaking out on this issue in a rational, succinct way to people you know will make the biggest overall difference. That, and not accepting their gift of every issue of "Nightwing" ever made on one thumb-drive.
4) Make better comic books
If you want someone to pay over $3 for your single issue -- whether in print or digital -- it had better be worth it. If you can read the entire comic in under 5 minutes, it was not worth $3.99.
These are just some suggestions. It's a complicated issue with many sides to it, but I still think at the end of the day, comics piracy will be a time-bomb for the industry once digital becomes more popular. The time is now to figure out strategies to make buying -- rather than torrenting -- comics more attractive.