Stealing sharing precepts wisdom

Stealing sharing precepts wisdom July 7, 2011

My thanks first of all to everyone who has commented on this, both here and at Nathan and Danny’s sites, and to Nathan and Danny in particular for keeping the discussion going. The issue is still far from resolved in my mind, but I want to lay out some of the arguments. I’m meshing various things from various people, so don’t think I’ve picked you out personally unless I say so.

To be clear, we’re talking about Buddhisttorrents (and, by extension, sites like it), which directs users to unauthorized online copies of copyrighted works, most notably, books on Buddhism.

The arguments break own into roughly these categories:

  1. who is hurt,
  2. who benefits,
  3. motives,
  4. questions of access, and 
  5. of course, the law.

The question of who is hurt is not as clear as some would like to make it. We cannot say that when someone is copying/downloading a book, they are not buying it in physical form. They might also buy it, or they may never have intended to buy it at all. It’s an empirical question, and I’m afraid I know of no data for it at the moment. But, in the music industry (in which people made the exact same argument), as I mentioned in the last post, it doesn’t seem to be the case that one download = one less song/album sold. As with the music industry, the publishing industry is vast and has many corners – perhaps academic presses are most like the record labels who specialize in jazz or classical music. In general the analogy seems quite good. I’m foreshadowing here…

Perhaps we could say that the downloader him/herself is the one who is hurt. By following desire and then rationalizing it after the fact, the person has lost a valuable opportunity to simply practice. This seems to fall too much into guesswork of people’s motivations for me. And it holds equally well for the rest of our consumerist world – “don’t go there, don’t buy that, just meditate on your desires.” Not very useful.

On the other hand, if you are going to buy a book, and then instead download it and do not buy it, I think you are in fact stealing. If you have the means to support the arts, do so. If you live near a library that has it, go check it out there. If you are downloading a book just to be cheap, the karma is gonna get ‘cha. But this is for you to discern in your own life, not for you to point out the faults in others.


Who benefits?  Well, according to comments at Buddhisttorrents, the downloader benefits. The first one has stayed with me since I first read it:

hi i live in mexico for me 1 boock cost 3 day of work ……and the books in spanish comes from spain and are 3 times more expensive than us prices……plese consider this and kepp on thanks

There are many patronizing voices out there (I grew up in rural Montana, so I’ve heard my share) that would say things like, “hey buddy, get a better job. Go to the library – oh, wait, your government sucks and you don’t have a library, haha.”

Now, nobody who reads this blog would be so patronizing… But it was comments like this (the person in Mexico) and memories of the very bright but generally ‘cut off’ people I met in my travels in India and S.E. Asia that tilted me toward being sympathetic to sites like Buddhisttorrents and their users.  
And further, artists (authors, etc) might benefit from this kind of sharing. Check this out, from a Theravadin monk, Ven. Yuttadhammo (in another comment section at Buddhisttorrents):

Fortunately, you are wrong… sharing media, especially ebooks, seems to increase publicity, fame, and even sales of the original material. It may not help the top five percent of creators become filthy rich, but it certainly helps to get the average author’s name out and make a living. Here are some things you should check out: 

The truth is, strict adherence to copyright is hurting the spread of ideas and the advancement of civilization. 

And stealing is when you take something away from someone else. Ebooks, like fire, cannot be stolen, they can only be copied.

Right. So, downloaders at least believe they’re benefiting, and it’s quite plausible that authors and publishers are too.
Motives, I think I’ve already said a bit about. But I think this is where Buddhist ethics and ‘the law’ tend to diverge. Where the law looks at the act in a great deal of isolation, Buddhist ethics is more concerned with the motivation of the person involved. Granted that we’re all samsaric and thus desirous and ignorant. It’s up to us in whatever we ‘consume’ to constantly ask if it is for the benefit of all beings. 
But we also must look at the motives of authors. If the profit motive is what drives you to publish, stop. There, that was simple, wasn’t it. Our society doesn’t support enough authors, or artists of any kind. This is a social problem, but blaming people who are actually interested in you and your work might not be getting things off on the right foot. Our whole society needs to put more money into arts and humanities. But criminalizing someone for downloading a copy of “The Art of Happiness,” or playing the ‘bad Buddhist’ guilt trip isn’t going to make that happen.

Watch just the last 2 minutes or so of this utterly remarkable man’s lecture (link):
One of the greatest barriers to the sharing of ebooks is that “the author doesn’t want it to be shared.”  Well, there’s one way to fix that. Lewis Lancaster is a leader in many aspects of the modern Buddhist world… I hope that he will be able to lead others in this respect too.

The question of access seems to be one of the most important. Obviously if you have plenty of money and space, you should buy the books. If you’re spending your wealth on non-dharmic non-helping-the-world things and downloading books for free, then it seems clear that their wisdom is not sinking in very far. One of the assumptions, it seems, of those who disagree with downloading is that the people doing it are exactly these people.

On the other hand, reading the comments from people at Buddhisttorrents, we get at least a partially different picture.

I liked and will perhaps slightly twist one of my friend Danny’s statements from his post, “If we’re talking about truly sharing these works (like, say, with other patrons in libraries), with everyone enjoying largely free and open access to these texts, there’s really not much of a problem beyond better educating the public about their options through libraries and other services. So, as far as I can tell, the only trouble anyone could have would have to do with not being able to own one of these pricey texts as private property… “

Exactly. And sharing does seem to be the ideal of sentiments such as Dr. Lancaster’s and many at the Buddhisttorrents site. If a friend, who happens to be a Buddhist monk, is at a library in Hong Kong, and scans and emails me an academic book (hypothetically of course – I was hypothetically living in a country we no fancy public libraries), we’re sharing.

It’s wonderful.

Do I own that pdf? Tricky question. Could I sell it? (laughter from the peanut gallery).

Do I own the book? No, it’s still in a library in Hong Kong. All I got was a shared copy of it.

All that Buddhisttorrents creates is a giant, user-created and maintained, digital and open-access, library.

And that means access for brilliant people who want to learn all over the world, not just those who are so privileged as to have been born in rich countries.

If you don’t want your book in the library, just be sure not to sell it to any of the library’s potential donors.

Those of us who are wealthy enough and love (love!) the smell of new books will hopefully keep publishers and authors alive. And, as I and others have mentioned, hopefully publishers will find a way to make a bit off of digital downloads (isn’t Amazon’s Kindle doing that now with its cheaper version?). If publishers can put digital ads in books and then spread them on the internet, then every download will potentially send money back to the publisher – money they wouldn’t get when someone buys one of their books second-hand, or when it’s checked out of a brick-and-mortar library…

Another option, one that would take some technical know-how, would be to create a subscription service. People could sign up, pay a monthly fee, and download a set number of books/articles per month. These would have a built-in shelf-life of, say, 30 days, and then they would self-corrupt (there is already software that makes pdfs non-cut and paste-able, and password permissions, and of course 30-day trials of software, after which it just won’t open, so this must be possible. The patron could just re-download it, of course, thus necessitating another month’s subscription, ad infinitum.

The law? The law is a mess. Exhibit A: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has a special section protecting the design of boat hulls. Copyright Law, fair use, and so on. And if you want to pick up the 2nd precept stuff, I’ll drop you like a woman in a river, my friend (if you need background, read here – or watch the video with amazing klezmer music).

As I said before, we need progress here – not entrenchment and finger-pointing. When I have a book out on Kant and Buddhist Ethics, if someone steals it, I’ll figure they need it more than I do. If it’s a decent book and they read it, perhaps some good will bounce back my way.


Pretty graphs. Music album sales are way down… BUT, digital single sales are soaring. Can we do the same with downloadable chapters or sections?

Irony from the movie world. One of the most downloaded documentaries of all time is a movie called “Steal this Film,” about intellectual property rights.

A long academic paper. Basically it talks about how the poor nerds in the tiny niche market of classical music have actually benefited from the digital age:

The developments in online trade detailed in this chapter have shown the classical music industry making its mark in this sector of the market. The losing of DRM rights from the major record companies has increased online trade. The smaller record companies were the instruments in the development of online business. This is a shift from the dominance of big companies to the smaller and independent companies, and more recently to the individual artists. (p.135)

Holy battle-cry batman! March on ye Buddhist authors and publishers!

Alright, that’s all for now. I’m afraid that if I write anything more, this will have to become a chapter in my doctoral thesis, and then in my book, and I’ll have to find a way to charge you all for reading it :). 

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