Web Comics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I recently published an iPhone / iPad app called Web Comics, a simple RSS reader with over a hundred of your favorite web comics, allowing you to share your favorite episodes with friends via Facebook, Twitter and email.

I was excited when Web Comics hit the App Store yesterday, however rather than happy fans I was flooded by angry artists upset that their content was being consumed by the app.

I quickly reacted to the inquiries, changing the price from $1.99 to FREE, and then eventually removing the app from sale.

My apologizes to the artists, I did not mean to offend, the exact opposite actually.

I love all these comics, and read many of them daily. However I found it frustrating not being able to read them in one place, especially on my phone. That’s why I created the app, because I personally found it quite useful, and I hoped that others would too.

In hindsight I should have asked permission from each artist to consume their content.

My apologies again.



Update:

29 thoughts on “Web Comics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  1. Yes, all of these comics already exposed their content via RSS feed, which means many readers are already consuming in this format using Google Reader, iGoogle, etc.

    The application is a simple RSS reader, pre-populated with a list of RSS feeds.

  2. Hi Dale,
    This is evidently an app that has the potential be very popular. Although I didn’t get a chance to download it, from the descriptions and screenshots provided it seems that it is the sort of webcomic readering app that I’ve been hoping would come along for some time. For tackling the technical challenges involved I commend you.

    However as one of the artists featured (www.lukesurl.com) I can understand the misgivings that others have had – especially for those, unlike myself, who earn money from ad revenue.

    Since you have surmounted the technical challenges involved it would seem a shame to waste this effort. What you now have is more of a bureaucratic challenge to bring artists on board (some degree of payment being most likely). If this is not your sort of thing, then may I suggest selling the code to someone else, (Ryan North maybe?) who might be interested.

    It looks like a good app, and I can imagine there could be a lot of potential users out there. I hope this project can be made to work.

    Cheers
    Luke

  3. hey Dale. Yeah, there is a nasty history of websites and apps which pull webcomics from sites, but strip the rest of the RSS content. That’s the main gripe as I can tell. The sales pitch for the product didn’t really specify, and so fears abounded.

    If this app is purely an RSS readers, and pulls the entire feed, and is simply geared towards easy reading, then there is nothing anyone has to complain about (and many of us keep discussing making one, but are too busy drawing). We cartoonists do put RSS feeds up for a reason. I’ve been an online cartoonist for years, and would love something like that.

    Even if you listed easy comic subscriber links in it, that would be fine too, I’m sure. They are just links. Totally legit. I’d even encourage the app to have a main database which could be added to by users or cartoonists, so ALL webcomics could get on board.

    Lastly, I think the other big stink might have been, that you kinda used cartoonists’s built up brands to sell it. If you do that, they should get a cut. It is their livelihood.

    So, yes. Tweak it. Rebrand it. INCLUDE THE ENTIRE RSS FEED! I think it’d be great. And add spacetrawler.com to it if you do. :)

  4. Dale,

    I understand the artists’ qualms, but I don’t think you did anything wrong. It seems to me that if the artists publish RSS feeds, they’re /trying/ to be compatible with readers for that content. If they want to force people to view the full page, then they shouldn’t offer RSS feeds. To offer feeds and then attack you for using them seems senseless. Perhaps /they/ are the ones who didn’t think this through very well.

    Cheers,
    Dan

  5. Hi, I’m one of the artists whose work, half of the comics at Left-Handed Toons, was in the app. I was not upset by it.

    Learning that it is nothing more than an RSS aggregator leads me to believe there is not even a copyright violation happening. If artists are upset, they should not provide RSS feeds. Does this app maintain ads that artists have put into their RSS feeds?

    Even if this is technically a copyright violation, I consider the value added by aggregation, exposure of my comic to more people on the iphone platform – and with lots of nice sharing tools for twitter and stuff to boot, all of which appear to link back to my site – to make up for any perceived value lost by the idea that this app replaces my site.

    Finally, it seems that much of the vitriol is due to the fact that this was not a free app. I believe it is pointless to be angry over this initial price set. The market sets what the price will ultimately be, not the seller. It seems likely that not many consumers would see this aggregator (and I believe that’s what’s being sold here, an aggregator, not my content) to be worth $1.99, and it’s likely that other cheaper aggregators could also appear, which would eventually drive the price downward.

  6. I doubt it’s a matter of being contrary or angry — there is a history now of mobile apps that specifically use popular webcomic brands (as mentioned before) without permission to pimp a paid app… add to that the tendency to strip revenue-generating RSS feed content, and I’d say the upset is deserved.

    Granted, pulling the app for now is the right decision.

    I just wish for once someone would come out with an app that comic makers could opt-in to, or even partner with, one that didn’t release with the seeming ‘Easier to Apologize than Ask’ mindset in creation. I would much rather have an all-in-one option myself.

  7. Thanks Drew, I appreciate the comment. Also, I love your comic, Left-Handed Toons!

    You captured my original intentions perfectly, Web Comics is a simple RSS aggregator, consuming already exposed content with some social sharing features.

    As you pointed out, many of the comics already have ads embedded into their RSS feed, which are clickable in-app, thus generating revenue for the artists.

    It’s unfortunate that I had to remove the app because I believe there are a lot of fans out there that would have enjoyed reading their favorite comics on the go, and sharing them with friends.

  8. Ditto what Chris said – if you’re just showing our RSS feed then please put it back up, charge whatever you want. This is no different than any other feed readers. And feel free to add my strips Unshelved and Not Invented Here to your list.

  9. Hi Dale, I take my hat off to you for dropping the app from the store so speedily – wow, what an experience to be avalanched in this way….I’m guilty of re-tweeting someone and wished I’d looked beforehand – this exposes a growing problem for so many people now on both sides. Let’s hope that your efforts are not wasted and the artists see that your intentions were indeed honourable at the outset. Good luck!

  10. Thanks Barnacle Bill and Antony for your comments!

    I was excited to have the app available for other fans to enjoy these comics on the go, so I was quite shocked when the angry mob formed. I kept getting images in my head of people with pitchforks and torches banging at my door ;)

    I’ll give it some thought and possibly re-publish the app with a way to search and add your own feeds.

    Developing the app took quite a lot of work, especially considering there’s an iPhone and iPad version, plus sharing via Twitter, Facebook and email.

    Thanks again for your support!

  11. I know Dale Zak, and I can confidently say that he meant no harm on with his Web Comics app. He has always loved web comics, and was only trying to share his enthusiasm with others.

    For those who don’t know, when Dale is not volunteering, he spends most of his time dreaming up ways to make money for non profits. Although being a volunteer may not guarantee his actions are always noble, I think how quickly he took the app down shows his integrity. Why not cut him some slack artists?

    Also, after considering all those artists who so vehemently opposed Dale’s app, I put out a question I’ve asked often before. Why do some people in the humour industry seem so unhappy and contrary? I have this preconception that they should be jolly. Like Santa!

  12. Morgan, I’ll do my best to lay out the cartoonist side of thing (fully being aware that i can’t represent us all). I hate thinking of cartoonists coming across as un-Santalike.

    Unfortunately people often view what cartoonists do as “not really work” (because we enjoy our work maybe?), and often ask artists to do their work for free or outrageously unlivable amounts. I’ve been given a contract which say that my entire body of work could be bought in full by the large corporation at whatever price they deem fair (which I didn’t sign, of course). If humorists seem unjolly, just think of the fact they they are working long hours for usually very little and are constantly having people try to use them or steal their work.

    I really think that the strong response was not about Dale as much as the history of comic aggregates where the RSS content is stripped (which was not specified in Dale’s product), as well as their work being used to advertise another’s product.

    I think Dale seems a great guy, and have NO doubt that he had only awesome intent. And I do hope this app (or a similar one) comes out.

    Oh, and I forgot to mention. Dale, if you put this app up for free (or offer a cut I suppose), I’ll bet you actually could get a LOT of cartoonists to let you use their names in the advert.

  13. Hi Dale,
    I’m choosing to remain anonymous on this, so take this for what it’s worth. I’m a web cartoonist, but I wasn’t included in your app (as far as I know).
    I think creators are overreacting and acting quite childish. You were well within your rights, and I wish you would have given it a few days before you pulled the plug. If someone complained, then you could have removed them individually.
    Web cartoonists need to start acting like the professionals they pretend to be and stop being so worried about the nickels and dimes. This would not have harmed anyone’s career as a cartoonist, nor would it have taken money from creators pockets. Given the opportunity to have my work included on what could potentially be a successful app, with no effort or fee on my part is a no-brainer.
    Why are so many web cartoonists perfectly happy to shell out $ for project wonderful ads that garner no significant audience increase or income? Walled garden bullsh*t, boys.
    If Marvel, DC, Nintendo, Apple, Lucasfilm, or any number of nerd-centric properties acted like this, 99% of all webcomics would be receiving takedown notices in the morning.
    Sorry you were dumped on by a few loud-mouthed bullies, Dale. They don’t speak for all of us.

  14. The best of intentions and the specifics of the RSS content aside; why didn’t you just ask before you offered it for sale?

    My issue with this app, as a fan, is that these artists do a great deal for “free” already. It seems disrespectful to use their brand without permission to sell something, whether it is for charity or not.

    If a local restaurant allows you to use it’s bathroom, that doesn’t mean it’s right to take their toilet paper and donate it to the local homeless shelter. The restaurateurs would be rightly offended if you did that, and they would have probably done something to help had you just asked.

    Asking would have spared you all this and it’s the right way to comport yourself professionally; you really aren’t being persecuted.

  15. Hi Dale, I’m sorry I participated in telling cartoonists about the app on twitter yesterday – It seemed that everyone involved including myself had no idea that your app is an RSS reader that pulls the entire RSS feed. As long as the app takes the WHOLE FEED, ads and blog posts included, I don’t see a problem with it, and I think many of the angry cartoonists from yesterday wouldn’t either. I tweeted you asking if it was an RSS reader, but just got the same apology tweet from you. And the screenshots for the app make it look like it just takes the images of the comics and not the full feed.
    I tweeted a couple cartoonists this morning with a link to the Storming the Tower write up about it:
    http://www.stormingthetower.com/2010/05/web-comics-app-aftermath.html
    Hopefully in the future app devs will make it clear that their app is an RSS reader, and cartoonists will ask if that’s the case if it isn’t apparent.

  16. Even if no copyright laws were broken (which doesn’t seem right, because most of these comics have a copyright clearly displayed), how can someone who is a fan of webcomics do such a thing to the artists he claims to admire? Some might think the backlash is extreme, but these people are hurt. They make their living working hard so that they are able to support themselves via ad revenue. Most of them would have probably been happy to be a part of this had they been respectfully asked.

    That being said, I think taking it down was the most respectful and ethical thing to do.

  17. Seriously, whether the RSS feeds are available really isn’t the issue here, the issue is the rights of the Artists and since permission wasn’t asked of the artists, they were well within their rights to be upset. Artists get ripped off ALL the time.

    I think if permission had been asked of the artists first and the app was explained to the artists some of the artist might have given permission to be included. But the Artists needed to be the ones to determine whether they were included, not an app developer.

    As an artist (and to be clear, not one of the artists in question because my art is not available through an RSS feed nor will it ever be just because of this type of thing) I have to side with the comic creators on this one…

  18. If this is, indeed, simply aggregating RSS feeds, I have no problem with this application (even if its a pay-app) so long as:

    - the trademarks are indicated to be property of the author
    - its made clear that the app is not the “official” app for the comics it aggregates
    - there is a clear and prompt method for authors to have their feeds removed if requested (technically, if they’re providing a feed they really shouldn’t be complaining that someone is aggregating it — that’s what RSS feeds are for — but it’s good manners to remove if requested)

    My comic is not included in this app (far too small), but if it was, and the app met the above critera, I’d have no problem with it.

  19. My iPad should be in my hands by May 28th and I’ll be looking forward to buying this app when you are able to re-release it.

    I understand that people can get a bit irrational when passion takes over and web comics are wonderful and a great thing to get passionate about. Dale I think you have done a good job at responding to this despite the fact that I’m of the opinion that you were never legally in the wrong. But, man oh man, the mob rage is horribly misguided. From my experience most people don’t understand ‘copyright’, ‘fair use’, ‘fair dealing’ (for us Canucks), ‘IP’, etc. I find most people need analogies when trying to understand computer/internet issues so here is mine:

    I like a bunch of restaurants in my city. I decide that these restaurants are so great that I should find some way to make it easy for other people to check them out and experience them. So I put together a list of restaurants and include the publicly shared info like their address and phone number. I also include a map so it’s easy for people to find these restaurants. Now I’ve taken a bit of my own time to come up with this list, gather the info, design it, print it, so I decide to charge for this list rather than giving it away. Do these restaurants deserve a cut of what I’m charging? Or course not.
    From my point of view that is what Dale was doing…or is at least a close facsimile to it anyway.

  20. Hey adamundefined:

    “created an RSS feed” does not mean “released the legal right to control the use of our IP.”

    You *think* you already understand this, and you do not. So read the following sentence twice, out loud:

    “The RSS feed is a *use* to which the creator puts the intellectual property.”

    You with me so far? Read it again once more to make certain.

    Now. This one:

    “The RSS-repeating app is a further, commercial, *infringing use* to which Dale Zak puts the content.”

    And that’s it. Hard to grasp?

    I’ll assume so.

    Copyright means “right to copy.” Our right, and nobody else’s. This includes the right to transmit. This right belongs to the creator the moment the work exists.

    Most of us present our content free of charge to the reader. This presentation is a rightful *use* of our own property.

    Some of us use the Creative Commons license. We expressly grant *some* of the legal rights to use our content to the public.

    My comic’s main archives and RSS feed are presented under Creative Commons Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Among other things, that means a commercial use like this app is expressly forbidden by the license terms.

    Additionally, Dale Zak used my trademark “Erfworld” to advertise the app. That’s a separate infringement of my legal rights, and a serious one.

    I have an Erfworld app in the iTunes store, which is authorized by legal contract with Robot Comics. Neither Robot Comics nor I appreciate the trademark dilution this app represented, and in the case of trademark law, the burden of defending against such dilution is on me.

    I can understand you not getting some of these things. Really, we’re not born knowing IP law.

    What I can’t forgive you for is the belligerent ignorance. You’re accusing the professionals in this field of not understanding what it is *you* don’t understand. We’re supposedly the hysterical mob because we rush to defend our rights and our livelihoods, as the law requires us to do.

    But you’re the calm, wise guru of copyright law, right? No, you’re a douche canoe.

  21. Hey,

    I’m the artist of one of the comics that was included in your app. I’ve posted about it on my own website, but to sum up:

    Not mad. Interested in joining a modified version of the application, if you decided to tackle it again.

    Don’t worry about the internet. It can be harsh, but there’s plenty of boobs in it.

    Dan “Jamie_G” Simon

  22. @Rob, way to rise above it.

    I can understand why people are upset, but my main issue is the way people went about it. I’d like to know how many creators personally contacted you Dale and asked to to kindly remove the app?

    And how many people had their Twitter followers do their dirty work for them?

    If my comic was on the list, I probably just would’ve turned you into a zombie in one of my comics, and then killed you in a horribly gruesome manner. But I’m just mature like that.

    Webcomic creators are always going on about being viewed on the same level as their professional peers who are in print in so forth. Well maybe you should start acting in a more professional manner, rather than a bunch of crazed Justin Beiber fans who have heard someone speak ill of their idol.

    That’s all I wanted to say, and I wish you the best if you make another go at this Dale. Hopefully less toes will be stepped on and we can find a common platform that will help out all of us.

  23. Web Comics has been re-submitted to the App Store.

    Since removing the original app from sale, I’ve been busy adding improvements including the ability to add your own comic feeds. You can also select from a list of featured comics or discover comics other fans have added. The app also displays the number of times a comic has been viewed, a great way to see it’s popularity.

    The app still has many of the original features including starring and filtering on unread episodes as well as sharing via Twitter, Facebook and email. The application is also designed especially for the iPad and iPhone which makes it perfect for reading your favorite comics on the go.

    For artists, the app is a great way to get your comic in the hands of new readers. And since the app displays the full RSS feed content, comics with embedded advertisements can benefit from click-throughs thus generating revenue for the artist.

    Here’s a blog post with more information http://www.dalezak.ca/2010/06/web-comics-republished.html

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