This is not iTunes: Why the Square Enix store is a step backwards for digital manga
(Crossposted from Fanfic Forensics)
A platform for the sale of digital content can impose restrictions upon customers, if customers get a great user experience in return. See iTunes. However, such a platform cannot impose baffling restrictions on how users are allowed to handle their paid-for digital content and make the whole experience of purchasing and consuming the content devoid of any user-friendliness on top of that.
This is why the new Square Enix online manga store is a missed opportunity that will convince no lover of manga to stop reading scanlations. This store is not iTunes. It combines a clunky user experience with very extensive restrictions on user's rights. The basics first:
Who can buy? Only US and French users (meaning that I haven't been able to test-drive this).
Price? Currently 5.99 USD per volume in the US and 4 euros in France, which is described as a "limited time offer", so expect prices to rise at least a bit.
Medium? Manga purchased can only be viewed in your browser via a Flash plugin. Apparently you need to be connected to the internet to view your manga, because they are streamed, not downloaded. These manga are not for mobile reading.
All in all, not a user friendly purchasing experience in any way. How many scanlation readers wanting to buy digital manga in a legal way are likely to look at this and see it as a usable alternative?
Trying to sell people something that will disappear when the store goes away? When they have the options of either buying a print version that can sit on their bookshelf forever, or downloading a scanlated version that will not go poof when a company obviously not concerned with user rights decides the experiment is over? This will just not work. Readers are not idiots.
Readers will also realize that the restrictions SE puts on their use of these manga are so unsuited to fannish online interaction in the year 2010 that it's almost funny:
(...) You may not download, print, save, post, frame, or otherwise copy the Manga to personal computers, portable hardware, paper, websites, or any other media or devices. The Manga may only be viewed via streaming access to the Service.
(...) You may not intercept, mine or otherwise collect information from the Service using unauthorized software.
(...) You may not hack, disassemble, decompile, or otherwise modify any aspect of the Service.
(...) You may not modify or cause to be modified any files that are a part of the Service and may not make any derivative works of the Service or Manga.
Of course, not allowing customers to download their purchases means that they will not be able to access their manga while the website is down for any reason:
Later, the TOS mentions what your options are if your license is revoked and you feel this was done for unfair reasons:
I'm not a law expert in any sense of the word, but does a company have the right to demand that you try to resolve your disputes with it through informal channels first? The rest of the TOS makes it clear that customers is basically powerless to fight any action by SE, unless they take this huge company to court and win there. What individual customer is capable of doing that? Seriously? (By the way, user data privacy regulations aren't exactly cutting edge in a good way either, a whole other can of worms.) Of course SE isn't some kind of evohl company that's making extraordinary efforts to ensure its customers can't lodge any sort of complaint. They're just following industry trends. But that doesn't make all this reasonable, or okay.
Manga publishers are going to have to do much better than this to convince readers of those other digital manga, scanlations, to switch to legitimately purchased content. Making digital manga work is eminently possible. The market of digital manga in Japan went from 40 million USD in 2005 to 543 million USD by March 2010, mostly thanks to the popularity of cellphone manga. These cellphone manga are in a sense problematic because they impose a lot of restrictions on what customers can do with their purchased manga. However, crucially, they offer a great user experience. Buying and reading cellphone manga is convenient.
Let me repeat: this online manga store is not iTunes, and its failure to catch on would not mean proof that scanlations readers are inherently bad people who do not want to pay for their content. It would mean that scanlations readers, like all manga lovers, can rub their brain cells together and conclude that this store is not a good-faith effort to earn their patronage and let them consume manga in a way that works for everyone involved. Customers will put up with some restrictions if they get convenience in return. Manga publishers trying to sell digital content overseas would do well to remember that. They would also do well to respect their readers' intelligence.