It would seem that the introduction of digital in a certain type of medium, whether it’s an artform, a news medium or a form of entertainment, never happens without some serious misunderstandings about who should reap the fabled benefits of that new opportunity. Come to think of it, digital has got nothing to do with it : whenever a new distribution platform is introduced (TV, cable, VCRs), there are those who are squeamish about who should pay, when it starts and how it works. Digital took things to a different level, because it invaded all forms of creative expression, and eliminates, by its pure nature, a number of practical limitations on reproduction and distribution, which in turn can only be good for profits.
A lot has been said lately about the possibilities that digital distribution to portable devices represents for comics and the comics industry, especially with the introduction of the Apple iPad. Traditional publishers are continuously being courted by all kinds of software and platform developers for exclusive deals. Especially in France, it would seem, the heat is on. All publishing houses seem to have concluded deals with developers like Mobilire, AveComics and a few others.
(a selection of digital comics from AveComics)
As was the case with movies on DVD, or with the distribution of music over the internet, one party is clearly left out: the creators. Quite often their contracts are shady in terms of specifications on their rights when it comes to alternative distribution. In 2008 the French Comics Creators Syndicate published a series of recommendations for the comics creator, which clearly stated to take care of business with regard to online exploitation of their work. Similarly, at this year’s Angoulème Festival it was the subject of one of the conferences: cartoonists and other comic professionals refuse to just leave the digital distribution of their work to their publishers. Earlier this week, this resulted in an “Appeal on digital“, launched by the Comics creators group of the French writers and composers syndicate SNAC.
Benjamin Roure reports in BoDoi how the creators don’t fear the digital revolution, far from it. They clearly see the benefits of alternative distribution of their works. However, “We regret that publishers’ initiatives go in all directions, and impose their way of thinking on the creators, instead of organising a debate within the profession to identify and seek consensus among all partners, creators included. As it is, every publisher sits in his corner trying to get ‘his’ creators to swallow the pill… “. On the eve of the opening of the Paris Salon Du Livre the petition had already gathered nearly 500 signatures.
The essence of the creators’ problems with the current situation is that the translations of their work to the digital screen, be it a computer screen or on a smartphone, are considered to be neither adaptations, nor cases of derived rights [not sure about the term], which would entitle the creator to 50% of the financial benefits. Publishers, however, would rather treat digital publication on a par with paper publication, which would limit the authors’ take to between 8 and 12 % before taxes (even while digital comics in France are in a higher VAT bracket). The creators also have a more fundamental, almost philosophical, gripe: why should they give up their digital rights 70 years after their death when they don’t even know what form digital comics will have next year, or even next month?
For that reason, the SNAC requests that all digital exploitation of authors’ works should be subject to validation, and that the transfer of digital rights should be the subject of a separate agreement, limited in time and subject to renegotiation. It also wants to establish a taskforce, in which creators and publishers are represented, and which the Ministry Of Culture would control, “to monitor and study the evolution of the book market of digital comics, (…) identify best practices , identify and promote fair practice, be the guarantor that technological change is accompanied by a change in terms of concession contracts (…)”. And they conclude with this ultimatum: “Until then (…), we refuse to permit the exploitation of our works in any digital format and we call on all cartoonists and book reviewers to do the same.”