The Ethics of downloading Dharma books

The Ethics of downloading Dharma books July 4, 2011
Um… Yea?

* with quick update, see end of post.

Back in February, 2009, Rod Meade Sperry of Shambhala Sunspace posted a short and thought-provoking article on the Ethics of downloading Dharma books. It seems that for a while now there has been a site called Buddhisttorrents that posts links to Dharma books (and similar items like yoga DVDs) that have been -most certainly illegally- uploaded to the web.

Last week Buddhisttorrents posted a letter from the publishers at Shambhala Publications, respectfully asking the site owner to cease activities and take town the site. Rod’s article drew over 50 comments, lasting into this year, and the post at Buddhisttorrents already has around 150, as of this writing.

As a scholar of Buddhist ethics, I guess I should say a thing or two about this.

I write now as a mostly-poor doctoral student, so I appreciate torrents and ‘borrowed’ ebooks in principle. As a samsaric being, I’m pretty naturally acquisitive in nature and I buy books like crazy when I have the money and shelf-space for them. I currently have crate after crate of books on Buddhism and Western philosophy stored in my parents crawl-space. I’ve just moved from the US to the UK, and the idea of shipping many or all of those just seemed ridiculous. A handful of the most important ones did come over on the plane with me, a few were shipped, and I’ve already made a stop at London’s best libraries…

I’m also an aspiring writer and educator. Do I want to work for no pay? No. When I write books, do I want to sell copies and make a few bucks? Sure. Do I expect to get rich in either capacity? No.

But what if my book ends up on Buddhisttorrents?

Well first of all, writing as an academic, I can tell you that I won’t be waiting for the mail each month for those commission checks. Most academic books sell primarily to libraries, where little thieving b*%#$rds, er, students, check them out at no cost, xerox them, underline them, and otherwise abuse them until they just disappear and maybe get replaced. The real benefit from writing academic books is really quite intangible. What is important is the reception by our peers, the furthering of important lines of thought, and sharing of ideas, not the sales figures. I figure that when the time comes I’ll either 1) turn a blind eye to the downloads, 2) make sure there’s a sentence or two in the digital versions encouraging readers to buy or donate to the publisher or some other worthy cause, or 3) actively encourage very low price or free copies of my text.

One of the most common defenses of torrents made in the comments at Buddhisttorrents is that the people downloading books are people who could not have bought them otherwise. To the extent that this is true, torrents don’t hurt authors or publishers. Another comment made many times is that the torrents actually increase sales by exposing more material to people. To the extent this is true, torrents actually help authors and publishers. I would love to see some empirical evidence for either of these.

The same goes for the music industry. In reading up a bit on the laws of music downloading, I found this:

And album sales aren’t haemorrhaging in the doom-mongering way we have been led to believe. Single sales have dropped, but 28 million more albums were sold last year than a decade ago, including digital sales. Live performances, which account for more than half of the industry’s profits, are unaffected by downloads – and may even be boosted by the opportunity they offer for young people on tight budgets to sample the music they might like to hear at a concert.

So the music industry survived, and continues to thrive. And movie box-office numbers don’t seem to be going down as more movies end up on the internet. So, can publishers and authors continue on? I hope so.

I think what may be needed is a new business model. Perhaps a Netflix of books. Or more use of advertising so that free content makes money. Take a look at Charles Prebish and Damien Keown’s venture into ebook publishing. These Buddhist ethicists created the first free peer-reviewed journal in religious studies and as they say:

One decade later, it was becoming overwhelmingly apparent that textbook costs were mirroring the price explosion that had rocked the world of scholarly journals; and in subsequent years, our failing economy has only added to the dilemma. Today, for example, the retail cost of Mary Pat Fisher’s highly popular 7th edition of Living Religions is about $100., Warren Matthews’ fine World Religions sells for almost $110, and Robert Ellwood’s still popular Many People, Many Faiths (9th edition) costs nearly $90. For colleagues teaching in our discipline—Buddhist Studies—the situation is perhaps worse. One of the most successful introductory volumes on the Buddhist tradition is the course text now called Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction by Richard H. Robinson (the original author), Willard Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu. It’s a great book, but it costs $75.

While their concern is mainly with students being able to get an education at a reasonable price, the same sentiments can easily be extended to the general public.

In closing, I find it hard to ‘choose a side’ here. I do hope Buddhisttorrents stays around (note that even without the site, illegal uploads will still be floating around on the web, it’ll just be harder, I suppose, to find them). But I don’t want to see publishers go under either. Can they work together?  Can new business models be formed, utilizing ebooks, free books, and sits-on-my-shelf books?

In the end, we are all working together after all.

* a couple fellow Buddho-bloggers have added thoughts on this on their sites (email me or note in comments if you know of more, thanks!)

Rev. Danny Fisher at:

Nathan at: 

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