For realz

May 28, 2008

Everyone’s weighing in on The Pact from Tokyopop. (I feel compelled to capitalize it, because it sounds like the title of a Japanese horror film.) For a solid link round-up, check in with Lea Hernandez, who broke the story in the first place. Brigid Alverson stakes out the middle ground in the argument over at Digital Strips, suggesting that it is possible to enter into the contract with eyes open and take advantage of the opportunities The Pact does offer.

I remember the first time Tokyopop’s contracts with global creators came up and a generational argument between veteran creators like Hernandez and newcomers who took Tokyopop up on their offer. The newcomers tended to insist that of course they knew what they were getting into, and that they had carefully weighed the pros and cons of whatever ownership they were sacrificing for exposure. (This contentious dialogue primarily took place over at Warren Ellis’s The Engine, and the archives are no longer available, so I’m reluctant to rely too much on my memory of the specifics of the discussion.) Since then, the tunes of some of the contracts’ staunchest defenders seem to have changed in the face of laboring under the contracts provisions, which only goes to show that you can carefully consider the pros and cons of a professional opportunity that has some pitfalls, make an informed decision, and still end up dissatisfied by circumstances you couldn’t predict or control. (Johanna Draper Carlson does a fine job of pinpointing some of the conflicts that have arisen for creators.)

Here’s my take: If I were a creator, I wouldn’t sign The Pact, nor would I advise a creator of my acquaintance to do so. If I were a teacher of art or creative writing who worked with budding comics creators or the advisor of a manga or anime club, I would print out a copy of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s reaction and keep it on file in case I heard my students considering the possibility and wanted them to be well informed. Because really, The Pact’s “accessible,” “hip” language is a screaming red flag. That approach may a sincere attempt to clarify legalese, but it’s not that hard to decipher legalese on one’s own. I’ve written about legal disputes that were stacked with this kind of daunting verbiage, and there are plenty of on-line resources that help you translate it into human language and teach you a bit about the process along the way. The outcome reads as a cheap attempt to manipulate inexperienced creators who want to be reassured that their interests will be protected. Like most attempts at hip marketing, it ends up seeming skeevy and predatory, even if that was never the intent.

And since I’m on the subject of creators’ rights and ethical dilemmas, I’ll point to Danielle Leigh’s latest Manga Before Flowers column at Comics Should Be Good, which takes a frank and comprehensive look at unauthorized, fan-created translations of manga and anime that are available online. I don’t know if I’ve every really articulated my position on those translations, so now’s as good a time as any. It’s kind of absolutist, which I’m sure shocks you all.

I don’t read them or view them, primarily because they deprive creators of the opportunity to profit from their work. I know the argument that the existence of these translations can present the abstract possibility of an official license and profit for the creator by drawing potential licensors’ attention to demand for the properties, but I can’t personally draw that direct line based on anything I know to be absolutely true. The “hack job” argument doesn’t persuade me either. If a reader thinks a license-holder’s translation and adaptation of a work is profoundly inadequate, I think the ethical response is to inform other consumers of those failings and to attempt to raise the production standards of the publisher in question.

I’m not going to think less of you if you consume scanlations and fan-subs, especially if you confine yourself to as-yet-unlicensed properties. But I do think that if you care about creators’ rights in the context of The Pact, then you should feel at least a little uncomfortable about consuming work with the knowledge that the work’s creator isn’t getting any compensation for it.