Comics piracy is the hot topic of the week, and understandably so, since a lot of comic book creators have been discovering that tens of thousands of people appear to be pirating their comics based on the view counters on various comics piracy sites. It's a shocking thought. Could an exponentially higher number of people really be pirating your comic than buying it? What if even a small percentage of those readers could be converted to customers by stopping piracy? This is totally outrageous and probably the biggest problem facing the comics industry today!
Seriously. 95000 READS over the 10 issues. What the everloving fuck. We've already had to shorten the book due to a lack of money.
— Aw beans, it's Ted "Nibs" Brandt (@ten_bandits) November 24, 2019
While there were plenty of online pirates who loved the book and wanted more it didn't help. The second series by Pete Milligan was scripted and I was ready to start then Virgin Comics closed. People lost their jobs. For me? $24000. But please… tell me about your entitlement 2/
— Gary Erskine (@garyerskine) November 25, 2019
Remember six months ago when I mentioned that comic piracy numbers were easily 20x legitimate buyers and it was a real problem?
Sometime yesterday a bunch of other comic pros looked closer, saw the numbers and the cold chill of it really hit.
— Jim Zub (@JimZub) November 25, 2019
Well… slow down a little bit and warm up, folks. The fact is, those numbers that show up in the "views" counter on piracy sites are almost certainly vastly inflated, something most people wouldn't have any reason to know unless they have some experience in running a website (which, it so happens, we have a lot of). So let us break down for you why those numbers displayed in the hit counters are probably complete bulls**t, and the number of people pirating comics is probably far lower and more in line with (or lower than) the percentages seen in other entertainment mediums. Hopefully, that can help some people who are understandably stressed out by this whole thing relax a little bit.
Most sites rely on complex analytics software from companies like Google to track the people visiting their site, and important base metrics there include things like unique pageviews and unique visitors. This software looks to keep track of who is visiting a site so that, for example, the same person clicking on a page ten times can be accurately counted as a singular consumption of that content. Purveyors of reputable websites want to know this data because it helps them make business decisions. But a shady site posting a hit counter on their page only wants to display the highest possible number in order to make themselves look more important than they actually are.
In addition, analytics software can generally tell who is a human and who is a bot and exclude the bots from the important metrics. That last bit is important because bots often account for a significantly higher percentage of hits on a website than users do. These bots are performing tasks like indexing the page for search engines that make the web work. A report in 2017 found that 52% of all web traffic comes from bots, and that number is only likely to have risen since then because bots continue to become more advanced and prolific. In addition, comics piracy sites often display comics one page at a time (after all, this maximizes their clicks and therefore ad revenue), and it's highly likely that each page turn counts as a "view" for the site's purposes.
So using some simple math, if a site shows 100,000 views for a comic, we can immediately assume more than half of those "views" come from bots (and that's a conservative estimate, because bots will continue to crawl a page as long as it exists, which means the first issue of a comic will continue to rack up bot views even after readers have finished with it). Of the 48,000 remaining "views," you should probably divide that by the number of pages, including cover and whatever "credit" pages the pirate posts at the end, so let's say 25. That leaves less than 2,000 people who probably actually read an issue of the pirated comic, which you can then divide by the number of issues aggregated in the view counter to get an average figure per issue. So for a series like Crowded, which the initial tweet suggested had 95,000 people read 10 issues, it's more likely something like 180 people per issue on that particular site, a figure much more in line with the number of people seen torrenting issues of popular comics like Marauders #1 from uploads by notable comics pirate Nemesis43 (and with the actual sales of the comic).
This thinking also brings comics piracy more in line with other mediums. A report in 2018 estimated that 1/3 of music consumers engage in piracy, so is it really likely that 20 times more comics readers are stealing the books than buying them, particularly in an industry with a smaller and more close-knit community where readers feel an obligation to support the books they love through purchases? While it's impossible to prove it without access to more complex analytics data from piracy sites, it seems probable that comics piracy is less prevalent than music piracy, and it is almost certainly far less prevalent than this week's panic has convinced people it is.
So while yes, piracy is a problem that it would be great to solve, the comics community has probably gotten itself worked up into mass hysteria over a problem that is not nearly as widespread as the data appears to indicate at first glance to (understandably) less knowledgable consumers of that data. So by all means, be rightfully upset that someone is taking money out of your pocket, but keep in mind that the amount of money is more likely to buy you lunch than it is to buy you a new yacht or let you retire early, which might affect how much the thought of piracy stresses you out on a daily basis.