The digital comics powerhouse comiXology announced yesterday that they will now provide DRM-free backups of comics purchased through their system for participating publishers. (You can read their full press release here.) DRM (Digital Rights Management) is what companies use on digital files to lock a user into not only a specific format, but a specific way to access that format. In comiXology’s case, it has meant that if you bought a comic through them, the only way you could read it would be to log onto their site, and read it from their servers using their software.

From a user’s perspective, it’s problematic for a few reasons. First, if comiXology closed down for any reason, every one of their customers would have lost every comic they ever purchased through them. Because of this, it wasn’t so much a purchase, in fact, as it was one-time-fee rental. (The terms of use spells this out expressly by stating that by purchasing a comic from them, that “does not confer on you any ownership”.) Similarly, if a customer chose to leave comiXology for any reason, they would also have lost every comic they had ever purchased.

It also means that comiXology continued to control your purchase after the transaction. They could elect, at any time, to change the content of the comics you bought. Or, for that matter, remove them entirely. If a publisher decided that they didn’t want to deal with comiXology any longer, any of their comics that you bought could just suddenly disappear from you digital library.

Ostensibly, DRM protects the creators from having their work pirated. But this has been disproven repeatedly across multiple industries (particularly the music industry) for years. There is no absolutely sure-fire way to prevent someone from copying work. For as much as producers spend their time and money creating DRM systems, pirates spend as much time (and generally no money) in cracking it. Sometimes just for the challenge of proving it’s not an infallible system. But DRM is a restriction on usage that makes it more difficult for honest users to get to the content as well. The people who are willing and able to pay but don’t want to jump through a bunch of hoops to get to the content. DRM not only doesn’t prevent what it’s intended to prevent, but it keeps honest people from becoming customers.

So what comiXology has done is moved to a direction where the comics you buy digitally are yours. Not with every publisher yet, but some significant ones like Image, Dynamite and Top Shelf. And they provide both PDF and CBZ options, the two most popular DRM-free choices for comics today. They’re very clear that it’s intended as a personal backup, and they currently only have options for downloading issues individually (as opposed to, say, an entire run on a title or your entire library) so it remains a little tedious.

However, as the largest and most significant distributor of digital comics, their decision here carries a lot of weight. You might recall that they pushed heavily for releasing digital comics on the same day as their print counterparts, despite publisher reticence. Once they proved it was effective with a few publishers, the rest jumped on board. I expect the same will happen here, and we’ll see other publishers open their eyes to going DRM-free.

And this means that there will be even fewer restrictions to readers getting comics and people who have been sitting on the fence about getting into have fewer reasons not to get into it. The more barriers you place between you and your potential customers, the fewer customers you’re going to have. By opening up their options in comiXology, I suspect we’ll soon be seeing this powerhouse of digital delivery become even more succesful and bring in new readers to comics while they’re at it!