You May Not Own that Digital Comic, Son

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice. This is merely information conveyed that is apparent from reading publicly available contracts.

I did a practice run at this topic a while back as I prepared for a paper. This is a more reader-friendly version of that content.

Can't really sit on the fence with this issue.
Can't really sit on the fence with this issue.

We have all heard the debates on physical comics versus digital comics. Some, like myself, are nostalgic and wish to keep the books to pass on to future generations. Some, like my brother, are modern and love having a good issue to read on the go and on almost any device.

Turning the page or swiping the screen?

The smell of print or the joy of built-in soundtracks?

Paper cuts or strained eyes?

We’ve heard the debates – we’ve even had them within our own brains – but now it is time to look at the issue from a different light: Legal.

I am a soon-to-graduate law student at the University of Wyoming. My interest in the law came about because I wanted to learn to protect the rights of artists, I having been a recovering bass player. As you might imagine, any university based in Wyoming is not going to have a strong intellectual property program. Why would they? Sheep don’t make art. But I was lucky enough to have a professor that was interested in IP law and he let me do an Independent Study in which I wrote on digital ownership rights. It was a long, boring paper (only unsexy lawyers find long, boring law papers sexy) but it pretty much amounted to this: Under current practice, the majority of you don’t own your digital comics.

Taylor Swift is totally photo-bombing my Marvel example. It's not always about you, sweetheart.
Taylor Swift is totally photo-bombing my Marvel example. It's not always about you, sweetheart.

Let me repeat that: Under current practice, the majority of you don’t own your digital comics. Like, at all. (I hope you used your best Taylor Swift voice for that last line.)

I’ll make Marvel an example. I am enjoying the newest run of Uncanny X-Force. It’s different and in a very good way. Let’s pretend I can’t make it to my local comic shop (Heroes Only in Cheyenne) and I decide that I can’t wait any longer. I jump on Marvel.com to download the last issue. Perhaps I don’t notice it, but there is a link on the bottom of the page that says “Use of this website signifies your agreement to the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.” Using the site (like downloading sweet Uncanny X-Force comics) shows that I agree to the Terms and Conditions of the site automatically. Marvel.com does not have to require a signature for this type of contract; simply using the site shows my acquiescence to the rules of the site.

So what does this mean as I purchase the new Uncanny X-Force? The very first term in your objectively agreed-to contract is that Marvel.com retains all rights to the property that the consumer is accessing/downloading.

“Your use of the Web Site does not grant to you ownership of any content, code, data or materials you may access on the Web Site.” (Term 1, emphasis added.)

Then what do I get, the loyal Uncanny X-Force downloader? A “limited license.” I may use the content for my own “personal, internal use” only.

“The Web Site and the services offered on or through the Web Site, including any content and materials thereon, are only for your personal, non-commercial use.” (Term 2.)

By “purchasing” a digital comic you are actually contracting to only have a limited license to use the content. My Uncanny X-Force is only to be used by me. I can never legally sell the right to that digital issue.

It's a great deal, unless you don't think so...
It's a great deal, unless you don't think so...

This opens up many issues for debate:

  • Why does the site say I’m purchasing issues? Isn’t that misleading?
  • Why can they charge the same amount for a digital issue as a physical one when no limitations are placed on physical copies (as in, you own that book)?
  • Does this actually help or hinder anti-piracy policies?
  • What is the legality of simply giving your device’s password to a friend or relative?

The sad thing is that this is pretty standard right now across all forms of media. Music, books, games, and so on, are typically limited when bought digitally. Does this detract from your desire to “purchase” digital comics? Some say there is no price for convenience. (Actually, I just made that up.) Digital comics ownership is nothing to some because flexibility is worth any price. Some, like me, hate that my money goes to nothing more than a glorified private viewing of the comic. Give me my physical books. Give me actual ownership.

A look at other contracts for digital content will show similar things to the Marvel example, like Comixology. Very few contracts actually allow digital ownership. Check your digital contract out to see the status of ownership on what is in your digital queue.

Source: http://marvel.com/corporate/terms

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