There's an excellent discussion going on over at American Buddhist Perspective about the ethics of downloading dharma books. The post centers around a site called Buddhisttorrents, which I have visited once or twice, but never really looked at closely. In fact, it's only now that I see the site has an extensive collection of dharma books available for free download. The few times I glanced at it, I thought it was a book review website.
Here's a clip from the ABP blog post:
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.
I definitely agree that new business models are needed. As a writer in multiple disciplines - from spiritual blogging to poetry, I find the current flux in the publishing world quite confusing. Just a decade ago, I was in a graduate level creative writing program, learning how to write query letters and locate which print journals I could publish work in to build a case for getting, for example, poetry books published. Online publishing, including blogs, was mostly the realm of hacks, tech nerds, and amateurs with little interest in actually going through the hoops to get their work published "legitimately." It's amazing how quickly things can change. Although the old ways of getting your writing published still work to some extent, the internet has opened up so many other opportunities, and with that, a lot of questions.
Of course, as a Buddhist, all this brings to mind the second precept. Here are a few translations.
Thich Nhat Hanh's version is very specific.
"Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I undertake to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I undertake to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth."
And here's a more simple version from a dharma talk by Kusala Bhikshu
I accept the training precept not to steal, not to take what is not given.
One of the challenges of the economic system many of us currently live under is the lack of generosity it displays in it's very roots. The intellectual property rights laws and framework, which I and any publisher might use to "protect" whatever writing we seek to publish, create a logjam around it that frequently discourages sharing. At the same time, simply ridding ourselves of this system basically means leaving millions of writers, artists, and others in a financial lurch.
In some ways, I have always thought that finding ways to decouple the income of artists and writers from the specific "end products" they make is part of the answer. Having to sell every last piece of writing or chunk of pottery to make ends meet financially has always seemed like a crazy expectation to me. And yet, if you talk to the average middle level manager of a Fortune 500 corporation, or rank and file elected official, you'll probably find little sympathy for writers and artists. Produce a crap load of marketable stuff, have a "real" job, or stop doing it all together will be the three comments you'll most likely hear from these folks, and many others. Some of these same people will have offices filled with art and books, and can't imagine a life without some "culture," as long as that culture comes as a cheap afterthought of course.
So, it's hard for me - as one of those writers and artists who makes next to nothing on his work - to know how to respond to something like pirated dharma books. I can say I have downloaded maybe four or five books over the years, almost exclusively things I figured I would never see a paper copy of in a bookstore. I also had a short phase of downloading music files, but that was years ago, before Napster's downfall and the lawsuits that followed. There are other things I do download, like articles and podcasts, which mostly are being offered freely by the people who made them. Overall, though, I'm just less of a collector than I used to be. So, even if I'm really into something like a writer or musician, I'm rarely rushing out to find all the material he or she has produced anymore.
But I keep coming back to a question. How can we all be more generous? What can be done to maximize generosity towards writers, artists, publishers, and the rest of us participating in the circle?
That's what I'll offer today. Those questions. Feel free to add to the discussion with your comments and questions as well.