Scanner tags, comic book piracy and participatory culture
First Monday

Scanner tags, comic book piracy and participatory culture by Aaron Delwiche



Abstract
To learn more about the motivations of individuals who scan and distribute comic books, this study reports findings from a content analysis of 389 scanner tags extracted from comic books posted on the torrent network Pirate Bay. Coded according to four categories linked to the literature on comic fandom and participatory culture, tags were analyzed in terms of recognition, aesthetic style, textual signifiers, and visual signifiers. Though comic book pirates seek recognition from their peers, they are primarily concerned with focusing attention on their favorite fandoms. This study challenges the view that digital piracy should necessarily be interpreted as a form of cultural resistance. The phenomenon of comic book scanning makes more sense when understood as a manifestation of fan behavior. Comic book pirates are more fans than revolutionaries.

Contents

Introduction
Literature review
Method
Findings
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Digital piracy flourishes on the global Internet. On a daily basis, illicit binary files circulate between loosely connected digital networks that constitute a digital archipelago of information exchange. This porous ecosystem includes USENET discussion groups, peer–to–peer torrent networks, private mesh networks, and transient data lockers boasting names like FileOM and Lafile.

When piracy is discussed in the popular press, pundits typically focus on movies, television programs, computer software, and music. Books and magazines are rarely mentioned, and people are shocked to learn that there is such a thing as comic book piracy. However, digital comic book scans are regularly posted to pirate networks before they appear on the shelves of brick and mortar comic shops (Alverson, 2011). Optimized for delivery on both low–definition and high–definition tablets, these scans often include variant covers prized by collectors.

Some believe that pirate scans are the final nail in the coffin of an industry already weakened by the collapse of the speculative collectors market in the 1990s (Van Lente and Dunlavey, 2012). Others argue that scans help the industry by highlighting obscure titles and cultivating a love of comics among new readers. Comic book historians have argued that digital scans preserve important cultural documents that would otherwise be inaccessible for legal and financial reasons, and they note that the image quality and coloring of the pirate scans is sometimes superior to digital reprints distributed by comic book publishers (Brill, 2005).

Unlike bootleggers who sell knock–offs of branded merchandise, comic book scanners do not personally profit from their criminal behavior. In fact, they actually pay for the books before making copies. Why would they take such risks? Due to the covert nature of their activities, it is difficult to ask them directly. However, those who pirate comic books leave public clues in the digital artwork appended to the end of each scanned comic book. Known as “scanner tags,” these images identify the individuals responsible for scanning and editing a single issue, proclaim connections to larger scanner crews, and regularly exhort readers to purchase their favorite works from legitimate comic book shops. Though some of the tags are hastily constructed, most display remarkable craftsmanship (see Figure 1).

 

A scanner tag attached to Search for Swamp Thing #3 in October 2011
 
Figure 1: A scanner tag attached to Search for Swamp Thing #3 in October 2011.

 

While much of the earlier scholarship on comic piracy has focused on ethical and legal implications (Stevens and Bell, 2012), this paper instead focuses on content. It reports analytical and descriptive findings of a content analysis of 389 pirated comic book scanner tags. What do these tags tell us about the motivations of individuals who scan and distribute comic books? In what ways are they similar to other forms of illicit art? In what ways are they different? These are important questions, and their urgency is compounded by the ephemeral nature of the data required to answer them. As Wershler, et al. (2014) argue, the cultural practices of comic scanners deserve scholarly attention because they “are a significant but fragile part of our digital history, and ... we are in the process of erasing them.” [1]

 

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Literature review

Comic book industry

Although the comic book industry was once a dominant force in American popular culture, declining circulation numbers, skyrocketing cover prices, and vanishing comic book shops have eroded its profits and power. Thirty years ago, the most popular comic book titles sold more than 500,000 copies per month; today it is rare for a title to reach six digits (Kalder, 2013). As publishers attempt to compensate for lost circulation, comic book prices have skyrocketed (Brill, 2005). Three decades ago, the cover price for a top–selling comic such as The Avengers was 60 cents; adjusted for inflation the same book would cost $1.36. Today, the cover price for the same book would be $3.99.

While small shops may be suffering, changes in our media landscape have injected life into the comic book industry. As broadband connections became more ubiquitous in the 2000s, publishers began experimenting with digital delivery. Reading comics on computers, though, was a clumsy experience — even on laptops. The introduction of the iPad in 2010 paved the way for an entirely new reading experience. Offering a multi–touch interface in a package approximately the same dimensions as a physical comic book, tablets were a natural fit with digital comics. Applications such as comiXology (https://www.comixology.com/) have adapted the comic reading experience to the tablet interface with a swiping gesture flipping between pages, a reverse–pinch gesture zooming in on subtle background details, and a “guided view” feature magnifying single panels to fill the entire screen (Ihnatko, 2012). New titles from major publishers appear on comiXology the same day they are released to physical stores, and leading players are gradually shifting their back catalogs to the platform.

Despite the fact that comiXology has remained one of the most profitable offerings on both the iOS and Android application stores for the past four years, the company is a relatively young player within the industry. And, while some fans have worried about the possibility of losing access to digital comic collections if the company were to suddenly declare bankruptcy (Kozlowski, 2014), the company’s recent acquisition by Amazon.com (Streitfeld, 2014) suggests that it is not in danger of folding any time soon.

The industry has also benefited from changing attitudes about comics fandom. While the “funny books” were once viewed as the exclusive domain of delinquent children and stunted adults (Wertham, 1954), this is no longer the case. Thanks to the conscientious efforts of librarians and educators, there is increasing awareness that the comic medium is capable of exploring mature themes in sophisticated ways (Botzakis, 2009).

Digital comic book piracy

ComiXology is not the only pathway to digital comics. For nearly a decade, groups with names like Minutemen, DCP, and Empire have disseminated thousands of comic book scans via the Internet. While comiXology uses digital rights management (DRM) to inhibit piracy, the files distributed by scanner groups are encoded in open CBZ/CBR formats similar to MP3 files. In a typical week, scanners add hundreds of torrent files to the comics section of Pirate Bay. For example, a single torrent file posted in March 2013 contained versions of 97 comic books released that week by major publishers. Another torrent file, posted three years earlier, contains 2,283 Superman comic books published between 1939 and 2010.

Often comic books appear on the torrent network several hours, or even days before they are officially released (Lima, 2011). Archangel, a retired scanner, estimates that well over 100 people are actively involved in scanning comic books (Johnston, 2012). Some groups are highly organized, with participants meeting in advance to assign responsibilities for upcoming releases (Mcrozowski, 2011a). Other groups are less tightly coordinated, but almost all networks divide labor between scanners, editors and distributors. Scanners are responsible for digitizing comic books, and editors are responsible for adjusting cover levels, cleaning up image spots, straightening pages and stitching together two–page layouts. Working together, scanners and editors spend anywhere between 30 minutes and six hours on each release (Lima, 2011; Mcrozowski, 2011b). Once the production process is complete, distributors are responsible for propagating the scanned files online.

Among those who read pirated comics, there are wide ranges of opinions about the scanner tags. Some readers feel that the images (which can range anywhere between 25K and 2MB) take up too much hard drive space (Kerviel, 2011). Others question the creative merits of scanner tags, saying, “cutting out a picture and slapping some text on it hardly constitutes a fantastic artistic feat.” (Skurvy, 2009)

Many in the scanner community are committed to their role as preservationists. For example, in a thread linked to a Pirate Bay posting of the 1969 comic book Heavy Tragic Comics, a scanner named Leonard T. Spock explains his techniques for converting comics from yellowed newsprint to “bright white, with crisp, clear treys and solid blacks on top.” A group called Miracle Scans is devoted to preserving out–of–print classics such as Miracle Man and Alias in high–quality omnibus collections. In notes attached to these files, the scanner explains that pages “have been heavily edited to fix minor flaws, color correction, and sequencing errors.” (Mrclscans, 2013)

Of course, historical preservation is not the only motivation. Reflecting on his involvement in the scanner groups, one retired pirate identifies gaining credit for scoops as a primary motivation. “It was all about getting YOUR copy out FIRST so that you could flood the fileshares before someone else could get their version out just to acquire digital kudos from those around you.” (Johnston, 2012) Scanner groups compete with one another in an attempt to be first, but they tend to unite when outsiders attack the scanning scene (Mcrozowski, 2011a).

In one of the few academic studies to focus on the activities of comic scanners, Wershler, et al. (2014) analyzed approximately 25,000 torrent records posted by comic scan distributors in 2010. In addition to providing quantitative confirmation of the collaborative nature of scanning networks, the authors identified a handful of “super actors” — highly motivated members of scanner crews who generate a disproportionate number of scans.

Criminal subculture or a new type of comic fandom?

At first glance, one might be tempted to explain scanner networks as a global criminal subculture. After all, the scanner tags created by comic pirates are an art form in which creative expression is inextricably linked to criminal behavior. There are no scanner tags without scanned comic books; thus, there are no scanner tags without the unauthorized reproduction of intellectual property. A similar intermingling of design and criminality can be seen in blotter art (Lyttle, 2004), ecstasy logos (Duterte, et al., 2009), heroin stamps (Wendel and Curtis, 2000) and graffiti (Taylor, 2012). In all of these instances, including scanner tags, one encounters minimalist visual designs that feature abstract symbols, popular consumer logos, counter–cultural emblems, and iconic comic characters such as Bart Simpson and Felix the Cat.

Despite these superficial similarities, attempts to view scanner tags as criminal cultural expressions are misguided. As Wershler, et al. (2014) point out, comic book scanners view themselves in very different ways than those who pirate music. The transformation of a physical object (floppy comic books) to a digital file is essential to understanding comic scanners because “reading a digital comic is a totally different experience than reading a print comic.” [2] If we are sincere about understanding scanners on their own terms, we must recognize that they represent a new type of comic book fan.

Peter Coogan (2010) observes that, “for as long as there have been comics, there have been comics fans.” [3] In many ways, comic fandom displays characteristics of participatory culture that were originally identified by Henry Jenkins (1988) in his groundbreaking analysis of the fiction authored by Star Trek fans. Although comic fandom typically begins as a casual activity experienced by an individual, it often evolves into active participation within a broader community of fans. Some fans remain on the periphery of the comic industry, writing fan fiction, engaging in cosplay, and expressing their passions in blogs and podcasts.

Other fans move directly into the industry, as writers, editors, or retailers; Coogan argues that this process of professionalization has driven the comic book industry for the past 50 years [4]. Comic book scanners play an increasingly important interstitial role in this emerging cultural formation; they are situated firmly inside the realm of comic fandom but firmly outside the comic book industry. They remind us that fandom and industry are not completely coterminous.

 

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Method

The sample for this study was composed of 389 tags extracted from scanned comic books posted to the torrent directory Pirate Bay. Purely random sampling was rejected because scanner tags are often duplicated and older files are unlikely to be seeded by torrent users. Faced with these constraints, a strategy of comprehensive sampling made more sense. By casting a wide net, and by downloading almost all unique scanner tags found on Pirate Bay between 2006 and 2013, it was possible to generate a sample that is remarkably close to the entire population. The sample size was sufficient to guarantee findings at plus or minus five percent at the 95 percent level of confidence. The author coded all content. Individual scanner tags were analyzed according to standard procedures of descriptive, quantitative content analysis (Neuendorf, 2002). A recursive inductive process (Thomas, 2006) led to the construction of four categories: recognition, aesthetic style, textual signifiers, and visual signifiers.

Recognition was coded by tracking credits for the names of individual scanners, the names of their parent groups, and role differentiation that explicitly identified editors, scanners, and distributors. Tags were also coded for what graffiti scholars have referred to as “words in disguise.” This was typically manifested as letters flipped around, messages written in fiction languages such as Elvish, and the number–letter transformations referred to by hackers as l33tspeak. Aesthetic properties of scanner tags were coded in terms of artistic style (e.g., comic art, vector graphics, paintings, photographs, Victorian clip art). Credits were also evaluated for evidence of stylistic blending with source material. For example, words inserted into comic balloons, messages written in identical typefaces with identical RGB color values, and scanner credits carefully embedded inside objects in ways that would be unnoticeable to the casual observer (see Figure 2). All textual signifiers were recorded, and special attention was paid to messages related to competing scanner crews (e.g., tags touting the crew’s superiority, tags referencing the competition, tags thanking others for their contributions). If tags exhorted readers to support the comic industry by purchasing books from their local comic shop, this was recorded. Visual signifiers were also tracked, with particular attention paid toward the presence or absence of symbols associated with other forms of outlaw art (e.g., religious and occult symbols, corporate logos, and popular culture icons).

 

In this scanner tag appended to Batman: The Dark Knight #4, the names of the scanner, Rizzen, and crew, Empire, are discretely etched into the edges of the pyramid's staircase
 
Figure 2: In this scanner tag appended to Batman: The Dark Knight #4, the names of the scanner (Rizzen) and crew (Empire) are discretely etched into the edges of the pyramid’s staircase.

 

 

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Findings

Recognition

Three scanner groups accounted for 81.2 percent of the entire sample: Digital Comics Preservation (n=131), Empire (n=106) and Minutemen (n=79). In their analysis of 2010 comic book torrent records, Wershler, et al. (2014) reported the enduring dominance of Digital Comics Preservation (DCP) and noted the declining frequency of scans posted by the Minutemen group. Both of those findings are replicated in this study. A new development, however, is the rise of the Empire group. Although it is the second most active group in this study, Empire was not considered a major player in 2010 — a testament to the volatile and shifting landscape of torrent networks.

The vast majority of tags (n=317; 81.5 percent) explicitly credited both individuals and their affiliated crews. Some tags credited individuals without reference to broader groups (n=38; 9.8 percent), and others credited the scanner crew without singling out individuals (n=24, 6.2 percent).

Scanner tags provided little evidence of conflict between different scanner groups. Few tags touted the superiority of their own crew (n=18, 4.6 percent), and only a handful acknowledged the existence of competitors (n=7, 1.8 percent). Rather, the tag authors seemed more concerned with role differentiation, distinguishing scanners, editors, distributors, and those responsible for obtaining variant covers.

Aesthetic style

As one might expect, comic art was the most common aesthetic style (43.2 percent). This was followed by photographs (18 percent), digitally transformed images (18 percent), vector-based illustrations (3.9 percent), paintings (3.6 percent), album art (2.8 percent), and movie posters (1.5 percent). Approximately 10 percent of the tags displayed credits in coded or transformed text. The most common transformations involved flipping letters on the vertical axes and the common hacker practice of substituting numbers for letters (e.g., “g00fy p1rat3” for “goofy pirate”). Often, the transformed credits were reminiscent of psychedelic poster art of the 1960s; the psychedelic style is characterized by involution, circularity, alteration of figure/ground relationships, and boundary distortion (Jones, 2007).

In more than half of the tags (n=226), credits were carefully blended with the source material. In its most basic manifestation, this stylistic matching was accomplished by carefully mimicking the typeface and RGB color values of the original image. However, many of the tags melded the credits in ways that require considerable technical skill (see Figure 3). For example, scanners rotated type on three–dimensional axes while retaining perspective and lighting consistency. Scanners embedded credits deep within comic book panels. Credits were found on the sides of buses, on the labels of bottles, on computer monitors, in clouds, and on steamed–up bathroom mirrors. In fact, these tags often seemed more like Easter eggs — hidden content for attentive fans — than traditional credit pages.

 

This scanner tag, appended to Dan the Unharmable (2012) from Avatar Press, emulates the cover of Transmetropolitan #38 (2000)
 
Figure 3: This scanner tag, appended to Dan the Unharmable (2012) from Avatar Press, emulates the cover of Transmetropolitan #38 (2000). The names of the scanner and crew replace the comic’s title, the comic’s protagonist holds a sign that says ‘will scan for food,’ and “scanned for mature readers” can be found in the upper–left corner.

 

Textual signifiers

Nearly one–third of the tags in this sample (31.4 percent) included written messages that went beyond assigning credit to groups of scanners. Usually, these messages focused on issues that would be interesting to a broader community of fans and often exhorted readers to support the industry by legally purchasing their favorite books. “If you liked the book, please support your local comic book shop and buy a copy,” proclaimed a typical tag posted by an individual named Wahscan. “Buy it and don’t be a leech,” exclaimed a scanner named Geeker. Scanner tags also included reading suggestions, highlighting the names and upcoming release dates for lesser–known titles (see Figure 4).

 

In this tag appended to Jungle Book Last Species #2 (2013), scanner Tarutaru draws attention to titles from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and other publishing houses and exhorts readers to purchase them legally
 
Figure 4: In this tag appended to Jungle Book Last Species #2 (2013), scanner Tarutaru draws attention to titles from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and other publishing houses and exhorts readers to purchase them legally.

 

Pro–social sentiments were common in scanner tags, and pirates used the images as an opportunity to comment on the lives of community members and the broader world. “With teamwork, anything is possible,” announced Team DCP. Tags also provided evidence that scanners paid attention to world events. “The suggesting of shooting someone over a difference of opinion is harsh and reprehensible,” noted Archangel in a tag appended to New Avengers #50. “The world needs a little more love not the advocation [sic] of violence. Peace!” Apparently referencing the dispute over gay marriage, a scanner named Second Class Citizen used a rainbow fist as his personal logo and reminded readers that “all men are created equal.” During the holidays, members of the three leading crews joined together to voice shared greetings in a single scanner tag.

The most powerful tags were those that memorialized fallen members of the community (see Figure 5). In some instances, only the scanner alias was cited (“In memory of our Dear Friend, PUCKINFL. Be at peace.”); at other times the tags appeared to reference the scanner’s real name. Memorial tags also mourned the loss of well–known artists such as Dave Cockrum (“A legend among heroes”) of Uncanny X–Men and James Aparo — an artist known for his work on superheroes in the DC pantheon.

 

This tag, appended to X-Men Legacy #226 (2008), memorializes a fallen member of the scanner community who used the handle Bumblebeeman
 
Figure 5: This tag, appended to X–Men Legacy #226 (2008), memorializes a fallen member of the scanner community who used the handle Bumblebeeman.

 

The three major scanner crews have recognizable logos. Fully one–third of the tags included the logo of one of the “big three” scanner crews (32.1 percent). One group (Minutemen) took this self–identification even further, including specific icons for each scanner. Even after analyzing hundreds of scanner tags, it was difficult to link all of the individual icons to the source scanners. In marked contrast to blotter art and ecstasy stamps, none of the tags depicted the logos of luxury brands. When human figures were depicted, they were usually derived from popular culture sources, most often comic books (n=93; 23.9 percent). Movies and television (n=13; 3.3 percent) and comic strips (n=5; 1.3 percent) were also shown. Inexplicably, Calvin Coolidge (“Keepin it old school since 1872, sucka”) and William Taft (“William Howard Taft has a posse”) each made cameo appearances, but they were the only recognizable political figures.

 

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Discussion and conclusion

Taken as a whole, these findings call into question the premise that comic book pirates can best be understood as a criminal subculture. Although they are engaged in illegal behavior, their words and practices are very different than what the literature on cultural criminology would predict. While recognition for their efforts is clearly important to comic book scanners, it does not seem to be the most important thing. The fact that many of the credits only reveal themselves to an experienced eye suggests that scanners are more concerned about receiving recognition from their peers than from “tourists” who download the occasional book.

Unlike those who are engaged in other criminal activities, comic book pirates do not earn a single penny for their efforts. The scanners themselves foot the bill: buying new comics the day they are released, purchasing and upgrading high–resolution scanners, and investing countless hours in the digitization process. They also court considerable legal risks without any financial reward. The type of currency that matters to scanners is not measured in money; human attention is the prize that motivates them. They seek attention for themselves and recognition from their peers, but they are primarily concerned with focusing attention on comic books.

If we can judge their intentions by the scanner tags affixed to their work, those who digitize comics do not provide much support to those who would view their activities as an expression of resistance to dominant institutions. Although the pirates openly express their disregard for intellectual property laws, their rebellion does not go much further than that. The dominant mood in these tags is not that of resistance and opposition; instead, these tags are all about celebration of the comic book medium.

Comic book scanners serve the interest of a new type of comic book fan who privileges reading and storytelling over ownership and hoarding. Writing at a time when digital comic books were in their infancy, Jeffrey Brown (1997) suggested that comic book fans are different from all other types of fans because their passion “is almost exclusively centered around a physical, possessable text.” [5] Brown argued that Dr. Who fans could purchase as many pieces of fan merchandise as they want, “but none of it carries the same ability to substantiate fan authenticity in the way that owning a copy of Wolverine #1 does.” [6] But, for comic book scanners in the twenty–first century, owning a copy of the first edition is not enough. The story must be shared, the art must be appreciated, and fringe titles must be highlighted — even if this violates intellectual property law.

From this vantage point, the cultural practices of comic book pirates look similar to more socially accepted practices found in the world of fandom. Consider, for example, fan fiction communities in which tens of thousands of fans create and distribute stories about their favorite characters. Consider remix cultural products such as Phantom Edit — an unauthorized but widely distributed work in which fans “improved” upon the movie Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) by reorganizing crucial scenes and deleting less popular characters from the narrative completely. The fans that engage in such activities have much in common with comic book pirates. They share a certain obsessive passion, willingness to violate intellectual property laws, and a desire to focus the currency of human attention on the fandoms that they love. End of article

 

About the author

Dr. Aaron Delwiche (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He teaches courses on hacking subcultures, transmedia storytelling and mobile gaming. In 2009, with support from the Lennox Foundation, he organized the lecture series “Reality hackers: The next wave of media revolutionaries” and published an anthology of essays related to the series. In 2010, he delivered a talk titled “We are all programmers now” at TEDx San Antonio. Aaron is the co–editor of the Participatory cultures handbook (New York: Routledge, 2013).

 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Cole Evans and Lupita Mercado for their assistance cataloging and analyzing digital scanner tags described in this study.

 

Notes

1. Wershler, et al., 2014, p. 3.

2. Wershler, et al., 2014, p. 23.

3. Coogan, 2010, p. 50.

4. Coogan, 2010, p. 59.

5. Brown, 1997, p. 22.

6. Op. cit.

 

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Editorial history

Received 8 March 2014; revised 13 April 2014; accepted 16 April 2014.


Creative Commons License
“Scanner tags, comic book piracy and participatory culture” by Aaron Delwiche is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Scanner tags, comic book piracy and participatory culture
by Aaron Delwiche.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 5 - 5 May 2014
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5247/4086
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i5.5247





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