Kleefeld On Webcomics #82: Pondering Ethics

By Sean Kleefeld

There’s a weird intersection of ideologies in webcomics. On the one side, you’ve got the people creating webcomics who are mostly interested in expressing themselves and telling stories and drawing. On the other side, you’ve got programmers and coding experts who organize databases and write coldly logically software to connect together all the pieces of what we call the world wide web. It’s a rather classic left brain/right brain type of scenario. The programmers want make a predictable and orderly experience, while the artists want something that catches people off guard.

photo credit: Karen Green

While the two different diametrically opposed approaches might seem so stereotypical as to be absurd caricatures, I have witnessed those types of interactions in person. When University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute interviewed Are You My Mother? author Alison Bechdel, Chute asked about a particular page layout and why Bechdel chose the specific composition she did. Bechdel stammered with some “Um”s and “Er”s before finally pointing back to the page being projected behind them and declared, “Because!” Where Chute was looking for a rational set of conscious decisions that led to the layout, Bechdel’s answer was more tautological in nature: she laid out the page the way she did because it would look different if she laid it out any other way.

So there’s almost always some inherent tension in just the nature of putting webcomics online. Even if the artist is not working directly with a programmer, they’re utilizing tools set up by programmers. Whether it’s an older style FTP upload process (though I hope there aren’t any webcomickers still using that today!) or it’s some simple blogging software, they’re following a set of instructions laid out before them by some very differently-minded people.

Interestingly, this leads to a curious ethical issue. Let’s use PvP as an example. Scott Kurtz has been very conscious of his business model for some time now. He posts his comic on his site for free with the intention that it will draw people to his site. Once on his site, they can purchase an assortment of tangible goods. Alternatively, they can browse around Kurtz’s comic archives which allows them to get a deeper connection with his characters and, even if they don’t spend any money today, makes them more inclined to do so later. But the basic model here is that the comic itself is a loss leader, designed to catch people’s attention.

Now, take a look at PvP’s RSS feed. It’s updated with every new comic Kurtz puts out, but instead of including the comic in the actual feed, he only includes a link back to the new comic on his site. Everything he’s doing encourages people to go back to his site.

Here’s Kurtz’s strip from the beginning of the month...


The file name is pvp20121001.jpg which comes from the comic’s name (pvp), the year (2012), the month (10), the day (01) and the file type (jpg). Makes perfect sense, right? It also makes sense that every file would follow the same format, too, right? So, if you wanted the image from, say, March 1, 2004, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the image is named pvp20040301.gif -- the only real difference being the file type. This kind of organization is what programmers love.

But back to the ethical question. What do you suppose the file name of Kurtz’s very last strip of this year will be? My guess is pvp20121231.jpg. Same file naming convention, just using the December 31 date. In fact, with that naming convention, you can pretty well guess the file name of any comic Kurtz posts in the foreseeable future. Which means that anyone with a modicum of programming or coding experience can write a script to grab every instance of PvP every day. And once they have the file, they can do whatever they want with it. Save it, print it, post it on another website, push it out to a special app...

Which is where that ethics issue comes in. Kurtz is giving readers a comic to read every day for free in the hopes you’ll send some money his way. Morally, you’re not bound to do anything after reading the strip. But it is most certainly his creation, and it’s not right to turn around and try to promote your own site or app by using his creation. But what about if you just downloaded it for yourself, like how readers used to cut out daily newspaper strips? What if you posted it to a web page, but you didn’t tell anyone? If you did that with several strips, you could have something that approximated an old newspaper comics section. But you’re deliberately bypassing Kurtz’s intent to get you to go to his site. Is that ethical?

Where does the line get drawn? Are you obliged, as a PvP reader, to read Kurtz’s strip only in the way he intended, even if you never purchase anything from him? If Kurtz changes his file naming structure (or the directory names, or anything that might screw up getting to the files in the same way) is it any less ethical to keep altering your programming to follow his new patterns, or is the first attempt okay, but additional maintenance effort another issue? What if you only set something up to save the files while you were on a vacation without easy internet access?

I’m sure Kurtz has his own thoughts on the subject. Me? I don’t know if I have answers for anything but the extremes here. But even if you don’t have any answers either, it’s a line of thought that’s worth pursuing. Does Kurtz’s relative success in webcomics mean he should be treated differently or the same as someone else who’s just starting out? If you were Kurtz, what would you want people to do with your comic?

Something to think about...

Related Posts:

Kleefeld On Webcomics #81: Mandatory Engagement

Kleefeld On Webcomics #80: What's In A Name?