Because my mother reads this blog, I am not going to say whether I have ever downloaded comics online illegally or not.
Still, I have friends that do it and it's a good example of how distribution and an entire market changes as a response to the internet. It's also a sign of the good health of the comics industry, since apart from megahits like Harry Potter, science fiction novels and comic books are the only two examples in the print industry where people are actually passionate enough to illegally download the material.
Illegal downloading was often the only way to get mp3 files of music recordings: everyone I know in the year 1999 had Napster, an occasion where the pirate industry was bigger than the real thing.
All of that changed with Apple and the iPod: illegal music downloading became fringe again because with the cheap 10 cent to 99 cent singles, it was easier NOT to download music illegally than it was to download music illegally. For that reason, something like the a pay service like Marvel Digital Comics service that gives good, complete and legal access to an archive that offers comics cheaply can easily replace something as haphazard and time-intensive as illegal downloading.
Stan Lee was once asked in an interview if new technologies would ever replace comics, and Stan said no: new technologies can only add to their appeal. The Marvel Digital Comics service would be a good test-case to see if Stan the Man was right.
The Marvel Digital Comics Service is extremely reasonable in price: about ten bucks for a whole month of access to as many comics as I like in the Marvel back-catalog. This is where it gets problematic, in that there's a real paucity of selection.
Sure, I got to read Avengers Forever again, and some of the John Byrne Fantastic Four. Yet the FF comics were extremely limited in that mostly what was offered was the first 50 issues of FF. Sure, guys. Name me one comic book fan that can't list the villains in the first 25 issues of FF by memory. It seemed like they only gave access to the most over-read, over reprinted comics: for example, the only comics they had in the Thunderbolts series were #1-4 and the Avengers/Thunderbolts special, which oddly enough are the only Thunderbolts comics that have ever really been in trade paperback form!
Now, let's compare that to how, on Pirate Bay, you can illegally download all 560 issues of Fantastic Four. As the scans are made by collectors this includes all the comics without exceptions, including issues that have never been reprinted and the annuals, and they also include (usually) advertisements and (more importantly) letters pages, neither of which are available in the downloaded version from the Marvel Digital Comics service.
I do not believe that illegal downloading is morally right nor do I support it, but the fact of the matter is that people will continue to do it as long as it is just plain more complete, effective, and provides a superior service than the pay service offers. (Seriously? No letters pages, Marvel?)
If I can download more comics illegally than legally (the only issues of Nova that are available for download is just the #1 issue), if I can download more complete comics and collections than the shallow selection offered by Marvel itself...why sign up for a service like this at all? Why is it that pirates can offer better downloads than Marvel itself? Why is it I can't get the 1990s run of New Warriors from Marvel's supposed "unlimited" service, but I can do so from a pirate website easily?
Marvel's pay service isn't even in the same league as pirate downloads, and the opposite should be true: Marvel should yes, require payment for access but should provide content that is greater in selection and without worms or viruses. Despite the fact that bootlegs are often available of movies, people still prefer to wait for the legal DVD releases for one simple reason: legal DVDs are of superior quality.
Some questions have to be asked about the purpose of something like the Marvel Digital Unlimited Service, and they have to proceed from these premises:
People want completeness. If you're signing up for a pay service, you do it not because you want to read Fantastic Four #3, but because you want to read FF #198, not available elsewhere or reprinted (yet). If this isn't provided or made available by Marvel, the pirates will do it. The 1940s comics that Marvel has up are a step in the right direction. The idea that Marvel's own digital comics archive should be anything less that totally complete, whereas those of the pirates are, absolutely baffles me. Why? Marvel isn't making any money off of them, Marvel owns the rights to all of these old comics in totality and perpetuity. If they're made available online, they can be put to work for the company instead of just sitting around - for instance, something like the 1970s Ka-Zar comics are not going to be reprinted anytime soon. Why not just put them online and improve the digital service?
The purpose of a service like this is not promotional. For instance, the character of Firestar is getting a big push from Marvel, with her original miniseries from the 1990s available from the service. While it's smart and good marketing to synergize in this way, the function of an archive like this is not to push new comics or media: the archive is an end in and of itself, not to support trade paperback or comics sales, and anything else is just backward thinking: eventually this will be the comics industry, just like electronic publishing has almost replaced the world of printed academic, engineering and scientific journals. In other words, Marvel can't put up a few issues and then say, "hey, if you like this, go buy the TPB." That's not only aggravating, but shows a limited understanding of the central function of an online reading pay service.
People that read comics in one form are not necessarily going to read it in another. One of the movie industry's complaints about VCR was that it would steal people away from going to the movies. Different formats just don't work that way. If you're some punk that's never set foot in a comics store, you're not going to buy a comic if it isn't available online, and using the service to point people to "real" comics isn't going to work. Likewise, if you're a "late adopter" (another marketing term for an old fart), you're not going to stop buying Marvel Masterworks and Marvel Essential trades because they're suddenly available for reading on the internet. The fact that a show is available online to watch on Hulu does not affect the ratings for a series when it airs.
In conclusion, the Marvel Digital Comics Service is a step in the right direction but it fails to identify 1) the central role this service going to take in the coming years, 2) the fact that as of right now, what Marvel offers in terms of content and selection are just not as good as people that aren't Marvel. In other words, the Comics Service is right now, something of an afterthought when it should be the chief priority.