It's hard to find nice stories about pirates these days. When I was younger, warm-hearted pirates and thieves were heroes, we cheered Aladdin and Robin Hood while we booed the greedy shopkeeper. But as a target now for over-the-top anti-piracy ads and the litigious industries that produce them, I fear losing touch with the figure of the generous bandit. This is why when I read the story of comic artist Steve Lieber and the 4Chan comics board, it warmed by heart and took me back to the days of lovable rogues who just want to be understood.
Lieber is the artist of the comic book Underground, which is sort of like Die Hard but set in a cave. Or at least that's how 4Chan user Internet Man described it when he posted the comic in its entirety on the popular board. 4Chan is a dark corner of the interwebs best known for it's random (or /b/) board, which commits acts of internet barbarism that are mostly hilarious but can be a quite abrasive. Like trying to throw a Twitter voting contest and send Justin Bieber to North Korea, that kind of thing.
The comics (/co/) board is a different game all together, and Internet Man's pirate posting is not a unique. One commenter complained that Lieber is an independent artist and that the pirates were hurting one of the good guys, but Internet Man claimed he was just trying to get a comic he loves out there where people will read (and maybe even buy) it. And then Steve Lieber showed up.
The thread's author quickly offered to take down the thread, but Lieber asked that it remain up. What followed is refreshing in an age when every YouTube video has a flame war lurking only inches below the 'play' button: a collectively gracious internet thread. The assembled pirates were quick to compliment the artist and thank him for his work – one even posted an adorable picture of a baby sloth as non-monetary compensation. Lieber proceeded to actually engage his fans – after all, what is a pirate these days but a broke fan? – in a discussion of the work and the comics industry. A fruitful Q&A quickly developed, and if Underground was a work of love, then Lieber must have been satisfied with the board's response.
It's a nice story even if it ends there. An artist embraces his pirates, who embrace him in return. Lieber's art has found more pleased readers, and a limited-release comic has become less scarce. But here's where it gets interesting. The day after the conversation, Lieber posted this graph of his Etsy sales of Underground:
The pirates – or at least a few of them – bought the book anyway. Not only does Lieber get more readers through unauthorized distribution, he even gets more paying readers. Having learned from the experience, Lieber posted a download of the comic for free on his site with a donate button. The pirates changed the producer, putting themselves retroactively on the right side of the law. Now I don't expect Jonathan Franzen's to release his next novel for free online, but if this is the effect piracy has on independent artists and their fans, then long live Aladdin, long live Robbin Hood, and long live the internet's generous pirates.