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A new DRM-free experiment: 'Diesel Sweeties'

The first book from the pixelated robots-and-romance comic is available as an unlocked PDF, a notable move in the world of Web comics.

A frame from the "Diesel Sweeties" comic.
A frame from the "Diesel Sweeties" comic.
R Stevens

Rock band Nine Inch Nails tried it. Comedian Louis C.K. tried it. Now Web comic "Diesel Sweeties" is trying it: DRM-free content.

Starting last week, cartoonist Richard Stevens III released a free PDF of "Pocket Sweeties," his first book from the comic, on the occasion of his 35th birthday. The result is a PDF that's not locked within the digital rights management wrapper that constrains the typical e-book.

The 2003 book features some of the comic strips' earliest episodes, mixing up the themes of robots and romance and rendered with Stevens' carefully constructed coarsely pixelated style.

Of course these DRM-free promotions aren't necessarily done out of the goodness of people's hearts--Stevens' two other treats last week were free shipping for some orders from his online merchandise store and the ability to pre-order a T-shirt. But they do show that at least in some circles there's a willingness to try to mix up e-commerce and creative works in a way that doesn't involve SOPA-inducing data lockdown.

"Diesel Sweeties" already is archived online, including in PDF format, for free. But there's more to the e-book, Stevens told CNET:

I can see the confusion on the e-book--the 11 older volumes of free PDFs are just straight-up heaps of unmodified comics. The "Pocket Sweeties" I released last week is a PDF version of a physical book I'd published a while back that included a foreword [and] character info, and every single comic was edited and recolored. I learned a lot about lettering and pixel art in those first hundred comics, so I spent some time fixing all the art so they'd match what my comics looked like a few years later. It's kind of fun to compare the book to what's on the site.

I like Stevens' artwork, but I also like his willingness to experiment with making a business out of cartooning. Selling merchandise is nothing new--everybody from old-guard strips like Doonesbury to Web-era ones including XKCD, The Oatmeal, and Cyanide & Happiness has a Web store. I'm looking forward to the Hyperbole and a Half book, too. Giving stuff away for free is a bit riskier, though--once content is released as free, it can't be put back in the bottle, and with e-readers ever more polished, a PDF comes closer than ever before to a physical book.

I just hope it's all enough for a cartoonist to make a living, because I like comics. I wouldn't like to have to rely on the newspapers that paid cartoonists' bills in decades past.

And while paywalls and DRM are certainly a content creator's prerogative, it sure would be nice if there were a way to get by using free content.