October 18th, 2002


RSS and comic strips

One of the things that I had in mind when I came up with the idea of ljcomics was to make it possible for comic strip artists to syndicate their strips independently in ways that bypassed traditional comic strip syndicates. Future RSS support for LiveJournal was always part of that plan, since it would allow artists to expand beyond the boundaries of LiveJournal and regularly reach a global audience via the Internet, without people having to visit their website every day.

I envisioned hundreds and perhaps even thousands of comic strip artists syndicating their material at practically no cost to themselves, being read by a worldwide audience. Obviously, such a thing would make the comic syndicates sweat. What I didn't think of at the time, however, was that every existing comic strip - commercially syndicated or not - would be fair game for the creation of RSS channels. Well, judging from some searches I have made for RSS feeds, that is exactly what will happen.

I've subscribed to three seperate RSS feeds with comic strips. There's dilbertdaily, comicstrips, and comicstrips2. Both comicstrips and comicstrips2 are compilations that individual users have made of their favorite strips... these feeds are really kludgy, apparently pointing to outdated resources in some cases... but the point is that fans took it upon themselves to create a resource for reading their favorite comic strips, not knowing or particularly caring that in doing so, they opened the door for the widespread distribution of copyrighted material.

In other words, with RSS, it's like Napster all over again. All you need is one person to create a working feed and suddenly everyone on the Internet has access to it. Shut down the feed from one place, and it is likely you'll have half a dozen pop up to take its place unless you give them a good alternative.

Take a look at the appearance of the dilbertdaily feed... the obvious question here is how does the artist (or, far more likely, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.) benefit from this. The answer, of course, is they don't really. If Dilbert were a smaller strip that needed to develop a larger audience, perhaps they'd have something to gain, but not anymore.

However, if United Feature Syndicate were to create an official RSS feed for Dilbert that included one of these:
then chances are it would go over fairly well, most likely bringing the artist more revenue than if the viewer had read the comic strip in their local newspaper. If the artist or their syndicate tried to insert big popup banner ads, however, there is a very good chance that fans would view the official feed as an annoyance and create their own.

All of this isn't to say that I am advocating for people to violate copyrights, especially those of the artists they love. All I am saying is that this scenario is pretty much inevitable and the ramifications are obvious... though a lot of people won't notice this happening for years. Either the owners of comic strips will need to be proactive in creating and controlling the format of their syndicated feeds in the future, or someone else will do it for them...

Currently, LJ doesn't provide outgoing RSS feeds that are useful or configurable so that artists can take charge of how they'll be syndicated across the web, but such things will have to be addressed sooner or later... given the way RSS is gaining support and converts, sooner might be a good idea.

Pox Americana

John Perry Barlow emailed out an essay yesterday that brought up some interesting points.

Some notable quotes:
"I believe that the American Republic died in the U.S. Senate last Thursday morning and was buried yesterday morning in the East Room of the White House."

"The Empire has discovered something important. The best way to deal with us is to ignore us altogether, as they did last Thursday. Our calls and letters had no effect whatever."

"Why don't we matter anymore? It pains me deeply to say this, but I think that part of the problem may be the Internet. A lot of what's wrong may be the very sort of thing you're reading right now. The Internet, has, as expected, provided a global podium to everyone with an opinion. Cyberspace has become an infinite set of street corners, each with its lonely pamphleteer, howling his rage to a multitude all too busy howling their own to listen."