Internet Piracy of the 19th Century

H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was first published in serialized form in Britain’s popular Pearson’s Magazine in 1897. It was a huge success.

So huge, in fact, that Hearst published it in his Cosmopolitan magazine later that year in New York. Again, it was wildly popular, though its overall impact on the American populace was limited by Cosmopolitan‘s smaller print run. Hearst was no chump though, and in 1898 his Boston Post ran another serialization of War of the Worlds. And, yet again, the story did gangbusters. The Boston Post was widely read throughout all of New England. Wells had never had so many eyes on his work. The Post‘s serialization was so well-received it led directly to the release of War of the Worlds in America as a novel. The most significant thing about the novelized edition is that it was the first time War of the Worlds was printed in America legally.


Hearst pirated War of the Worlds for both Cosmopolitan and the Boston Post. He sought no permission, he paid no royalties. In fact, the version that appeared in the Boston Post had undergone some rather severe changes to the text, foremost among them: recasting the entire story to take place in New England rather than Britain. Somewhat understandably, Wells kinda protested that, though to no avail.

Hearst pirated War of the Worlds. Moreover, he had it changed to be more accessible to the audience he was pirating it for in direct opposition to the wishes of the author.

And he wasn’t done!

The Boston Post‘s serialization of War of the Worlds proved to be so popular that he immediately commissioned a sequel! You can say a lot of horrible things about Hearst, but perhaps the worst is that he’s the prototype of every modern Hollywood exec.

Of course, Wells would have no part of writing a sequel. There were practical concerns to be taken into account. Y’know, like how Wells hated Hearst for all that piracy and editing. But, undeterred, Hearst found a budding American science and fiction writer Garrett P. Serviss to stand in for Wells.

Serviss and Hearst’s sequel, Edison’s Conquest of Mars ran daily in the Boston Post. It was the story of how mankind took the fight to the Martians with a fleet of space-borne warships designed, built, and armed by the story’s main character, Thomas Edison.

Because Hearst knew how to make a goddamn dollar. With fanfiction.

How did Hearst get away with it? Well, this was in the pre-Disney era of copyright in America. The rules were a little looser and enforcement was a little more lax*. Pretty much, as long as Hearst attributed “H.G. Wells” to the story, he was considered to have covered his bases.

But let’s take a look at the timeline, hmm?

H.G. Wells writes a serialized story.

The story is serialized without permission and reproduced on a vastly larger scale than was available to Wells through traditional/established/legal channels.

The piracy increases the public’s awareness of the author and the story in question. More people have now read his work than ever before.

An official collection of the serialized story is printed and it sells like crazy to the very people who already read it (more or less) for free thanks to piracy.

H.G. Wells directly benefits from his work being pirated.

Was Hearst in the right for pirating War of the Worlds simply because he could? Of course not.

Was H.G. Wells right to be upset over the piracy of his work? Of course he was.

The lesson here isn’t about who was right and who was wrong and how much an author’s feelings ought to be hurt.

The lesson is that people will seek the easiest ways to find original works. Sometimes that will be piracy. Those same people will then seek the easiest ways to support the authors of the pirated original works they cherish.

It has been this way since forever. The internet’s just making it easier to find those original works through piracy than in previous eras. But it also makes it easier for pirates to support those authors.

The way to get rid of pirates isn’t to fight them. 1) you will lose and 2) you will look like an old codger shaking his buggy whip at the newfangled autovehicle.

The way to get rid of pirates is to make it easier for them to support the authors they choose to pirate.

These aren’t evil people. They aren’t stealing things to ruin the lives of artists and writers. Pirates know a given work needs financial support if it (or the author) is to continue. If they enjoy a thing they happen to steal, then they will be inclined to pay for it so there will be more. The easier you make this for them, the more it will happen.

This is basic human nature.

*don’t get me started on what’s happened to copyright law in the 20th century; the victory of big business in warping public opinion and expectations of copyright law to benefit billionaires in the short term at the expense of culture, innovation, technology, and — in the long term — the billionaires too.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps you might link some proper research and numbers so we could get a good look?

  • Hikaro Takayama

    Oh, I agree with you 1000% on the “anti-piracy” BS in most modern computer games… I’ll freely admit to downloading no-CD cracks, DRM-removal cracks (especially if said DRM is that gosh-awful pile of crap STEAM, who likes to delete your account just because they feel like it or you aren’t using STEAM to buy enough games for their liking)…. The thing is that I only download these hacks and cracks for games that I have already BOUGHT and own the original game discs for!

    …Granted this is definitely in the gray area, but I don’t feel like hauling around an entire case of CDs or installing Valve’s spyware just to play a few friendly games at a LAN party with my friends.

  • Brian!

    Right. The politicians are afraid of empowering corporations?


    Not sure what world you live in, but I’d love to visit.

  • Brian!

    “limiting the means of replication and make it easier for consumers to buy the product.”

    That would be great.

    So far, EVERY attempt at the former has failed miserably while simultaneously failing to do the latter.

    It would be the ideal if this was Opposite World where that worked out though, I agree.

    Meanwhile, I’m concerned with the practical reality of producing creative work in an environment with piracy.

  • jaimehlers

    Another way to put this argument to even more thoroughly demonstrate how ridiculous the overreaction to Internet “piracy” is: I check out a book for free from the public library. I find that I like the book. According to the people in a tizzy about “piracy”, I will not buy the book, but will instead continue to take advantage of getting it for free. Anyone who has actually checked out a book that they ended up liking knows how probable that scenario is.

    Yes, there is a difference between a library and the Internet; namely, that the Internet has unlimited copies that never have to be returned. So what? If I check out a book from the library, I could use my scanner to put an copy of it on my computer (a bit time-consuming, but I don’t have to pay money) or I could “lose” the book and keep the library’s copy. As always, if someone really wants something for “free”, they’ll figure out a way to do it.

    To put this another way, there are not very many books or graphic novels that I bought which I did not have the opportunity to sample first (either the book or the author), either through borrowing a copy from the library or someone I knew, or reading some or all of it online.

    By the way,

  • jaimehlers

    Wait, I thought pirates were in the business of pirating to, well, get something out of it. You know, like real pirates attack ships so they can seize the cargo and passengers and get money for them.

    How does that equate to distributing content to the masses for free? What do they get out of it? Please don’t say “they get the book or whatever”. They already got the book or whatever before it ever got posted online (since they’re the ones posting it). They get no money or anything back as a result. In effect, they’re getting nothing for something; it doesn’t matter that they didn’t own the something to begin with. A thief who steals a gold watch is not going to just give it away, they’re going to try to sell it to get something back.

    It’s rather difficult to take this “piracy” argument seriously if you know what real pirates are like.

  • Anonymous

    The difference between the library and the Internet is not quantity. The library paid for the book. The Internet pirates (or thieves, if you prefer) did not. That difference might be negligible to the recipient of the “free” content, but there is a monetary difference to the author.

    With regards to your prior thoughts: The motivation for content piracy is intrinsic, i.e. not motivated by money. It is similar to writing computer viruses, in that the programmer (or thief in this case) generally wants notoriety, wants to make a statement or wants the simple thrill of doing something against the rules. It is not about money.

  • Guidojacobs2002

    Here’s a hundred torrent links and a five dollar bill. I’d like to buy out your entire inventory.

  • Guidojacobs2002

    That’s called “renting”, my friend. Not to mention, the 360 allows for free previews of shows.

    And I’m not talking about Hollywood Video or Blockbuster. I’m talking about the small shops owned by two guys that live in their parents basements. If you support them and tell them what you’re interested in, they’ll get some good stuff of that genre.

  • TheTurnipKing

    In the digital age, the quality of the product isn’t the factor, because you’re essentially getting the same thing either way. So the diffrentiatior becomes who can serve the demand quicker, and more easily, and better. and hilariously, it often turns out that it is the pirates.

  • TheTurnipKing

    A CD is just a susceptible to digital rot as MP3’s stored on a hard disk. I tended to hoard stuff, but frankly I’m turning to digital largely just to try and reclaim some space!

  • TheTurnipKing

    Thats how it always goes though. It’s rarely the initial innovator that benefits from the thing they’ve created. It’s pretty much always the big companies that subsume that work and continue creating it after the initial creator goes bust!

  • TheTurnipKing

    Conversely I didn’t buy Assassins Creed 2 (or indeed, play it) until very recently because I was strongly opposed to the stupid method of DRM that requires an internet connection for a single player game.

  • TheTurnipKing

    They paid for a single copy. Many people read it.

    So *logically*, in order for internet piracy to break even, just one pirate has to go on and buy a single copy.

  • Anonymous

    Not really. Your “logical” statement is only valid if the library were the only source of the book to the public, and by extension the only source of revenue for the author. It is not, so I don’t think piracy can be compared apples-to-apples with a traditional library. If piracy discourages the purchase of the media by an otherwise willing customer, that is a lost sale. I suggest that those lost sales far outstrip gained sales from “try it before you buy it” or library-esque theories of digital pirates stealing it first, and then later liking it enough to buy it.

  • Brian!

    Maybe for gaming or movies where there’s no appreciable difference between the fake and the real thing, but I just don’t see that with comics.

    People want to read comics. Comics readers want to support the books they enjoy. They want to own them.

  • Anonymous

    I think we’re in complete agreement there, as posted several days ago. I don’t find it 100% valid to compare games to comics, for exactly the reasons you stated. I agree that many comic fans will eventually want a physical copy. I still think the library analogy is weak.

    This discussion does bring up a question, though. If you believe that piracy (or free digital distribution) leads to increased sales, is there a way to test that theory? FCBD seems to be an obvious example, since you post digital copies on this site. I’d also be curious if you saw a spike in sales after releasing the AR iPhone comics. $1 on a phone is a much easier introductory price than $5 for the comic or $25 for the TPB.

  • TheTurnipKing

    But again, the same applies to libraries. If people read a book, then – under your current assumption – they would no longer want to buy it.

    It’s something of a balancing act. In information theory, exclusive information (be it a book, music or video games) holds it’s value far better than something widely disseminated, but conversely, if it’s held onto too tightly, it never becomes popular enough to gain any value in the first place.

    But the long and the short of it is “Piracy happens”. You can waste time and money trying to protect products from it (and irritating your legitimate customer base) or you can take that time and effort and improve the product for the people willing to pay for it.

  • Gillsing

    “That some people choose to work the system to get something for nothing is basic game theory. It’s worth reading up on.

    But most pirates are not those people.”

    I don’t know about that. Most of the household internet piracy I’ve come across in real life has been in the form of getting something without having to pay for it, either because the person didn’t have the money, or had the money and wanted to keep it, or spend it on other things. And I’ve seen DRM force people to buy games, and a necessity for online accounts has forced me to buy games that I could’ve chosen to keep playing without buying.

    When I copied C64 and Amiga games back in the day, the economics of the issue never even came up. I guess everyone just figured that if the publishers can afford to put out games, then they wouldn’t be hurt by us little guys* getting some for free. And I’m pretty sure that’s how most pirates think today, because the film industry is still making a lot of money. And the games industry is apparently making even more! And that’s with all these pirates pirating everything all the time. So how bad can it really be?

    * Yes, I live in the land of ‘small people’.

    Perhaps we’re heavily influenced by socialism here, and they don’t teach enough capitalism in school to make people understand how voting with one’s wallet really works? Perhaps pirates in USA are generally more aware of the economics? Or perhaps people in USA just have more money, and also easier access to content created in USA? Oooh, that delicious USA entertainment that everyone wants. TV series, films and games, games, games! People just can’t get enough of it. And on the internet, it’s all free! Wooo!

    With USA creating and exporting all that entertainment it’s completely understandable how getting paid becomes more important than freedom and privacy on the internet. And with all that money the big publishers are making, who can really prove them wrong? It’s business, not a popularity contest. Just because some talented upstarts can make money by giving stuff away for free doesn’t mean that the established businesses would increase their profits by giving their stuff away for free. Their goal isn’t to be nice to people while having fun and making ‘enough’ money. Their goal is to make more money, no matter how much they’re already making. That’s how corporations work, isn’t it?

  • Goob2k4

    Brian! You could prove it. There are a lot of people in this comments section saying “prove it” and you could.

    Let’s face it, Brian, you’re not exactly a little guy any more. Why don’t you put out an Atomic Robo torrent? Then you could put a nice little section of where you say something like:

    “Hello everyone who has obtained a copy of the Atomic Robo comic Dr Dinosaur’s Doom Engine. Just click the button below to give your money directly to the creators of the comic.”

    There are a lot of other things that could be discussed but we don’t need discussion. We need ACTION!

  • Brian!

    There’s already hundreds of Robo torrents out there and I’m not sure what value there’d be in tracking the activity of a new one.

    Also: my publisher wouldn’t let me :)

  • Brian!

    It’s hard to track what impact FCBD or piracy has. Couple reasons behind this.

    FCBD: we tend to get 20k – 30k copies ordered. But we have no idea how many of those get distributed. Or if some people get copies. Or if a lot of them tend to get into the hands of people who are into Robo already. Or if a lot of them end up with FCBD-kids, the kids who show up once a year to get their free shit.

    We had some nice synergy the last couple of years though. FCBD came when we had a series just starting and in both cases we saw re-orders for those series jump way up in the wake of FCBD.

    Anecdotally, we’re constantly hearing from folks who saw our comics on the iPhone or FCBD who then find us at conventions and buy a ton of books (or find us through the website to tell us they bought a ton of books).

    But there’s no way of knowing how representative they are. Is it rare for those services to convert people into customers? Is the conversion common, but the effort of telling us about it rare?

    Bottom line on sales of physical product through the direct market: our issue sales are more or less plateaued, but our trade sales keep going up and up. That seems to be the trend of the industry right now, so we can’t say what impact our officially free stuff has on sales as a whole.

  • Busi-Student


    i’m a friendly neighborhood Honours Bachelor of Commerce student in his last semester of his degree, I currently have a more up to date conceptual knowledge of business then most modern day CEO’s thanks to the way education progresses, however, i lack their on the job experience.

    from our perspective (that is indivuduals like myself) i can say that the current business model for creative content will not work. it is too easy, and will ALWAYS be too easy to steal creative works, especially now our age of digitalization.

    because of this we are seeing a shift from the current model into a new direction that is highlighted by our good host Brian. this is a shift into an era where our technological limitations are lessened, and because of that is is becoming easier for one to publish their own creative content into a highly accessible medium (the interwebz) as independent producers.

    this is the same shift we have seen in department stores, as technology progresses we begin to digitalise our processes. instead of one company acting as a middle man, we are using technology itself to connect producers to buyers.

    sadly for the large publishing companies out there, they ARE the middle man, they are the Scranton paper company, that connects the paper producer to businesses in the Scranton area, and they are the ones that will be beaten out by staples, who condenses the process and takes out the middleman.

    what this means to our content producers? they will see a larger precentage of the final price tag going into their pockets. what this means for the buyer? they will see a smaller price tag (due to the cheaper publishing methods and condensed marketing channel)

    what does this mean for the large scale content publishers? they will become obsolete and die. you may mourn them, but you would only be mourning progress.

  • Busi-Student

    to clerify

    i know Brian goes through a publisher for his physical copy, that will most likely never change. but as an example much of his work was independently produced and distributed over the internet resulting in his latter publishing deals and big shot celebrity status.

    all creative content can do this, and i was hasty to say that ALL publishing companies will die, as long as we have physical tangible content we will have somebody that has produced it. however as a culture we are progressing rapidly with technology, how long do you think it will be before we lose the hard copy and go completely digital? books are allready seeing that shift witht he e-reader, movies with services like netflicks, music with services like i-tunes.

  • Mattman

    It is worth a read. So it’s late, and I only read two of them, but you must realize that these studies really don’t prove anything, right? I mean, pirates buy more music than people who don’t. This also proves that people who buy music pirate it. Basically, it’s telling us that people who like music are going to obtain it more than people who don’t like music. Kind of a no-brainer there.

    It really is a tough case here. Pirates will always say that piracy is a-ok, and not hurting anything. Anti-pirates will say the opposite. I’m not here to try to sway anyone, of course.

    What I am here for is to dismiss this article’s argument as bull. He’s using WotW as an example of how piracy helps boost sales and benefit the author. In this case, it seems particularly true, yes. But why? Wells got a book out of it, and people wished to buy the book instead of saving old, tattered newspapers for when they wished to read the story.

    If we were to put that in today’s terms, that would be basically pirating a song encoded at a very low bitrate and then shelling out to buy a high quality version later. And logically, that makes sense. If you pirate a song and you like it, you’d buy it. But why would you buy it if you already had the highest quality song? You wouldn’t.

    How many people donated to Wikipedia this year? How many people donate every year? It’s an excellent resource, and I donated. But did you know that only 1 in 1000 typically donate? This year, they needed 2 in 1000, and they weren’t getting it the last I checked. And this is a resource that EVERYONE uses. So, at least when it comes to encyclopedias (remember how expensive those damn things were?), it seems this piracy business model doesn’t work.

  • Brian!

    Excellent response. Thanks!

  • Mattman

    While what you’re saying is true, it does little to address the problem of internet piracy. Brian is making a flawed assumption that people will pay for something that they want even if they get it for free, and he’s using the flawed WotW analogy to do it.

    So before this article, I’d never heard this tale of Orson Wells having his work stolen and reproduced in a newspaper. But that’s all it was. Reproduction in a newspaper. While it may have been stolen, this would be nothing but free press for Wells, basically. So of course, it would end as a good thing. Imagine a reader who then wants to keep that story. Would they just hang onto a newspaper that is going to quickly rot and decay for whenever they would read the story? Or would they go buy a book that would allow a more durable medium to preserve their story? Of course, they would choose the book.

    Now when you apply this principle to digital media such as a video game or an mp3, what incentive is there to pay for a copy if you can easily obtain a copy that is identical for free? Wikipedia becomes an excellent example for this. Only about 1 in 1000 Wikipedia users donate to Wikipedia annually. It’s not a for-profit service, and it’s a resource that nearly everyone likes and uses. And they barely make enough money to get by, ultimately.

  • dflek

    Hey guy. Good article. I checked out the first issue of this after torrenting it, loved it so purchased every issue and all associated titles via Comixology. 

    Good approach and some sense shown in your article.

  • dflek

    Completely agree Ironman288. If I couldn’t pick stuff up and try it first, I’d definitely purchase less media overall. Media companies that quantify their piracy losses by assuming that every download is a lost sale are kidding themselves. 

    Also, what about the flow-on effect of us people that consume lots of media influencing others around us to buy more. I know my brothers and parents would rarely buy DVD’s or BluRays if I didn’t give them suggestions on what they would like…

  • Brian!

    Glad you enjoyed it!

    My position with piracy is: some people are going to pirate our work no matter what we do. Therefore the best “solution” is to make as many pirates as possible want to support our product legitimately after they’ve sampled it.

    The best way to do that is to make the best comic we can!

  • Thomas Wrobel

    That CD will break in 2 decades, tops.
    A digital file can be copied, perfectly, from one medium to another and thus last forever.

  • Thomas Wrobel

    Hearst was far far worse then most pirates online:a) He profited from it.
    b) He significantly changed it.

    What if the changes made it less successfull? what if it gave the story a bad rep?

    Sure,it worked out well in the end in this case, but it might not have. He could have closed off a whole market for Wells. He might have destroyed the storys legacy period!