Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

It was around this time last century that the concept of motion pictures was developed. There were many attempts early on to capitalize on the idea, one of them being Thomas Edison’s “Kinetoscope”. Edison’s kinetoscope reflected the inventor’s determination to do “for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.” He hoped to duplicate the commercial success of his phonograph, which was then attracting patrons who paid a nickel to hear a brief recording through a set of earphones. By 1892 Edison and his colleague, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, had invented a camera or ‘kinetograph’ to take motion pictures and a peephole kinetoscope for individualized viewing of the moving images. The Kinetoscope ultimately became America’s first commercially successful motion picture exhibitor, charging a nickel a time for the ability to look through a viewer and watch a series of images on a loop go by.

I know the whole BitPass thing Scott McCloud is excited about (and he’s not alone) has been covered rather extensively as of late. I don’t know how many people at the San Diego Comic Con this year were at his booth interviewing him about it, but it was substantial. Rightfully so, in my opinion. So do we really need another damned article about BitPass and micropayments? Can anything new be said?

Well, I’m going to try. Humor me.

I’m taking a film class right now that recently covered the era of the Kinetoscope. Oh, I knew about them before, from my trip to Disneyland in 1985 (at which point they still had a similar technology functioning on Main Street USA). This class just jogged my memory of them, and happened to do so at the same time BitPass was being announced and brought into the spotlight. Consequently, I had a great series of thoughts regarding the two technologies.

My first thought was to check to see if kinetoscope.com was available for purchase (it isn’t). Then, and this may seem odd as being after the fact, I thought about what I might do with such a domain. What I pictured was a web interface, where you had rows and rows of comics to choose from represented by the image of a Kinetoscope machine, and then when you chose a comic you could “put your nickel in the slot” and view the comic in its entirety through a mock-up framework of a viewer from one of the machines.

I still like that idea, in theory anyway, and kinetocomics.com is available… but I’m going to hold off for now.

I also started remembering all those tip jars that were on every web comic site starting a year or two ago, where you could throw a buck or ten to the site creators via PayPal, Amazon, etc. That seemed to work okay for the big dogs for a while, driving in donations of substantial enough amounts by a few fans who could afford them to help out the artists and writers of their favorite comics. The problem I always found was that, especially in the current economical environment, I kind of guard my dollars well, and am somewhat reluctant to spend them. Oh, I did donate now and then to comics I read on a very regular basis; I thought that was only fair, really. But I also knew that if I could just empty the loose change from my pockets into my monitor and have it somehow reach the creators of these comics, I’d never even miss it. A dime here, nickel there, a quarter and a half a stick of Juicy Fruit another time. You get the idea. As BitPass comes out of beta and into mainstream use, I think that tip jar idea on websites is a lot more viable, and I know I for one will use it more. Heck, at such small amounts, I might lose track of it and spend even more all together than I would have with the previous “minimum” limitations. It will be interesting to see how that all shakes out.

In fact, that possibility of losing track is something Scott McCloud voiced slight concern over to me at Comic-Con. He doesn’t want to see something like his system of voting for the next Morning Improv title, by paying one cent per vote, make people lose control and spend however much it takes to win. $80 later and they’ve won the ability to choose the title to a comic. That’s it. They might not even like the comic that ends up coming out of the title. Then they start to resent Scott for it, things get messy… you get the idea. That’s one of the reasons it is nice that BitPass offers a “maximum payment” option, which in the case of McCloud’s Morning Improv is 99 cents.

So if Kinetoscope represents the past of micropayments, and BitPass is a good candidate for the present and probably at least the near future of micropayments, what does the more distant future hold, say a decade or more down the road? Sadly, my crystal ball is in the shop for repairs, and my Magic 8 Ball is too darned cryptic for my tastes… but I would still like to venture a guess or two along those lines.

With the Kinetoscope, each machine was $250, so even if Edison and Co. were willing to sell them to private individuals, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of takers in that day who could have afforded the price of one. So, they had arcade rooms filled with the things, and people had to travel down to them to gain access to the movies. The huge advantage webcomics have over kinetoscope films is that anyone with internet access and a computer, from pretty much anywhere, can access them. A thought about some sort of webcomics "kiosk" in comic book shops ran through my mind, sort of like a jukebox where you could stick in a quarter or something and read a comic… but the thought left my mind with a big "rejected" stamp on it just as quickly. Not only would I venture that the cost of such a machine would be profit-prohibitive, but it misses the whole point of what makes webcomics and the notion of BitPass great; you can do it from the comfort of your home, or from the library, or your school, or wherever it is most convenient for you. Heck, with wireless and a laptop, you can do it over a cup of coffee at your local cafe!

As technology improves and intermeshes with itself, one of the big predictions by Bill Gates and other industry leaders is that the home computer will ultimately become the center of entertainment in the household. It will be your television, your stereo system, your movie player, your internet access… everything that an entertainment center and a computer do today will eventually all come together as one unit. And that trend is certainly moving closer to reality every day. When this happens, I really see some interesting opportunities for micropayments. Instead of subscribing to cable en masse, or to satellite, you could just subscribe to one channel, or maybe even just pay for access to the specific shows you watch. Maybe they could learn something from webcomics, in fact, and offer access to older episodes of a certain show for a small price. Maybe you wouldn’t be paying to own the show, you’d only be paying to view it again, so the cost would be small per viewing. Not everyone would want to do it that way, some would still want to own the whole series on DVD or whatever the latest format is, but I’m certain there’s a market for the infinite pay-per-view concept.

Of course, the other thing such ease of use and abundant access to such technological resources can also lead to piracy, which the RIAA and MPAA are finding out the hard way and trying their best to fight. I don’t think the way they are going about it, punishing the people who want their media, is the way to go. It seems to me they’re just making enemies of potential customers. As Scott McCloud has talked about at previous conventions, I firmly believe that if people could get what they wanted for what seemed like a reasonable price, they’d buy it. I also believe a great deal of people don’t consider $16-18 is a reasonable price for a music CD, or that $20 is a reasonable price for a DVD, or $10 a reasonable cost to go see a movie in the theater (especially when we have to watch 15-20 minutes of advertisements after paying our admission price). Eventually a solution somewhere in the middle will have to be found, because quite simply, I think that’s what the market demands. And so, as my previously-posited scenario of buying television episode viewings with micropayments becomes a conceivable and solidly profitable business proposition, and as other forms of media become more easily and readily available to pirate with cheap and effective hardware and software, these deep ravines between the pirates and the entertainment business executives will have to be bridged by something. Micropayments are the best alternative my admittedly limited-resource mind can come up with.

Micropayments aren’t the answer for all things webcomics. They are just an answer. Subscription services for online comics, donation jars, merchandising, ad banners, print collections… these are all good ways to make a solid comic product more profitable. The best solution for your own needs has a lot to do with the kind of product you are offering, your particular fan base, your technological, financial, and temporal resources, and a bit of sheer luck and intuition. However, the more tools we have to make money with our online comics, the more money we’ll make! And with BitPass allowing micropayments to become a reality, we have one more potentially powerful tool.

Iain Hamp is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia.

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Iain Hamp