Marvel is apparently dipping its toe into online distribution
by offering some of its older comics for online viewing. Apparently, for $60 people can get a year's access to "the first 100 issues of Stan Lee's 1963 creation 'Amazing Spider-Man' at their leisure, along with more recent titles like 'House of M' and 'Young Avengers.'" It's a good idea, and I hope they'll be more aggressive about it. Putting household names like Spider-Man online is obviously the first priority, but Marvel and its competitors have enormous catalogs of less well-known comics spanning much of the 20th century. But they should also follow Time' lead
and make their entire catalog of lesser-known, out-of-print comics available for free online.
The most obvious benefit to this would be to generate some advertising revenue from out-of-print content. It might slightly hurt used comic book dealers, but that's not Marvel's problem, and it could actually have the opposite effect by sparking renewed interest from collectors for hard-to-find originals. But the more subtle—and in the long run, more important—benefit is that it would get a lot more comic book nerds reading and discussing out-of-print comics, and doing it on Marvel's website. For example, Techdirt Insight Community member Julian Sanchez recently penned a great article for the American Prospect discussing the evolution of political themes
in comic books over the decades. It would have been great—both for his article and for Marvel—if Julian had been able to provide his readers with links to archives of the relevant comics. Such increased traffic would provide Marvel with all sorts of indirect benefits, including opportunities to advertise new products, increase consumers' brand loyalty, and create spin-offs of old comics that enjoy renewed popularity online. Right now, those comics are just collecting dust, so it's hard to see what they have to lose.