Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Downloading Dharma Books and Ethics

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.


Barry said...

I suggest that it's important not to confuse generosity with giving people what they want or feel they deserve.

Most of us have very little insight into the intentions that govern our behaviors. All of us, myself included, tell ourselves stories that justify why we're entitled to whatever we want, without seeing the intentions behind the stories and without considering the consequences of our actions.

The fact that intentions and consequences are often difficult to perceive does not let us off the hook for doing the work.

Indeed, this is why the Buddha offered the precepts - to help us live in upright ways until we had matured sufficiently to perceive intentions and consequences.

By downloading copyrighted materials, we transgress the 2nd precept. We cannot use social conditions to justify our actions (no one has ever starved to death for lack of copyrighted material; no one has ever lost income for lack of copyright material; no one has ever failed to attain enlightenment for lack of copyrighted material).

We just want what we want. Intentions and consequences be damned.

Algernon said...

Barry's reply closely parallels my own feelings.

As an actor, one way I have been able to do my work is by investing in films -- that is, by accepting a percentage of the film's net income in lieu of payment. In order to be paid for my work, I depend on people to purchase or rent the movie.

Thus I have taken it on myself to ask people who proudly boast about circumventing payment (or, more remarkably, who think nothing of it) why they feel it is all right to take the products of other people's work without paying for it. I try to put my own face on it for them, because many people assume (if their conscience pipes up at all) they are only stealing from some big corporation.

The calmer rationales are quite similar to the defenses cited here. I've also gotten some enthusiastic lectures about how I should be *happy* that people bootleg my work. Think of the exposure! I ask them next if this would apply at a farmstand -- should the proprietors be happy that multiple customers are willing to take their merchandise and circulate it for free?

None of it adds up because it is a smoke screen. Like Barry wrote, "We want what we want." And like the Jane's Addiction rock song says, "When I want somethin' I don't wanna pay for it."

Nathan said...

I tend to agree with what both of you say, and certainly don't feel people "need" what they are downloading or getting for free.

I guess I just find the whole intellectual property rights argument, as well as the rest of our laws around such things, screwed up. And I'm unwilling to let that kind of thing go unquestioned, even if I agree that just taking pirated material is wrong.

That's why I pointed towards generosity. Because taking pirated material goes against generosity, but so do most of the laws that are supposed to be about "protecting" artists, writers, actors, etc.

Algernon said...

It's a valid question, and it has actually come up in slightly different forms: the line between generosity and being exploited, the frontier between so-called "idiot compassion" (letting oneself get used up and spent) and taking care of oneself so that there are more opportunities to manifest generosity.

Actors invest an awful lot in their art (I'm still paying for a decade of full-time formal training) and materials and research and related expenses, and no one is begging them to do that. So is that generosity? And then there is a demand for what actors do, yet an expectation that actors will do a lot of preparation and work for free. Where I my own eyes begin to narrow is when other parties make money off the work the actor does, while that expectation is in place.

But this isn't just about actors, this is true of all kinds of workers, especially workers in the arts: when the culture around the work is built around exploitation, what is generosity?

Petteri Sulonen said...

Algernon, what are your thoughts on community-funded film production? I.e., a (big) bunch of people who want to see a film made get together to finance it, but once it's done, it's distributed for free, with perhaps some additional revenue coming from associated merchandise?

This sort of thing is being done. In films and computer games at least.

Nathan said...


I hear you. I paid for three years of grad school to hone my writing skills, and a lot of people just think I should have gotten a more "practical" degree. Not that I'd listen to that as a guide for my life, but it does fit the attitude that we aren't considered terribly important.

"when the culture around the work is built around exploitation, what is generosity?" This is a big question - one that seems really important for considering on a mass scale. It also brings to mind all the arguments I had with my old school over barely paid and unpaid prep time and increasing expectations. Anytime one of us teachers would bring up money, the discussion always went back to the organizational "mission." We were poorly paid servants, always deferring to the needs of those around us, and pressured to feel guilty about our own. Some of it had to do with the plethora of Catholics in the organization, but some of it had to do with the overall culture we all live in.

Petteri's idea is pretty interesting. I hadn't heard of such projects before.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Heya Nathan, thanks for mentioning this and posting your thoughts. I agree fully with your sentiments on increasing generosity. I've sold a handful of my photos, but I'm far from considering myself an artist and that sphere. But I will publish books soon enough. And from my own perspective now, I'm honestly not that worried about people illegally downloading my work. That may change when I get my first measly commission check and start worrying about and tracking dollar figures.

But for now my motivations are just to get work out there. Good work will be judged by my peers.

I'll write a fuller response at my blog, but I think that people who download illegally (I too used Napster back in the day) do so for a variety of reasons. For me, the action (which the law looks at exclusively) is not so important as the intentions of the person doing it.

@Barry, you sound a lot more like Kant than a Buddhist here (which I respect, being a great fan of both). In my estimation, we have to judge our intentions at face value - to begin with. We meditate to learn more. But I think for most people this is not a clear 2nd precept violation; it's not so much a matter of 'taking' anything, but rather of replicating it. I know the law doesn't see it this way, but this is complex.

And it was in fact social conditions that mostly sparked my interest in the issue. What about people in Mexico or villages in India, etc. Sure, they won't starve for lack of access to the information we take for granted, but there does seem to be a very real and consequential "information gap" in the world. Kids who grow up with money in London or New York can pretty easily access the greatest libraries in the world, anything their hearts and imaginations might lead them to. Kids in rural places are extremely limited. By making more available on the internet, we break down those barriers. In America this is already happening, with lots of tax money from rich cities being spent to create digital infrastructure in rural areas, but that's just America...

Perhaps the "I'm poor and have no access to these books" may sound trite to some, but honestly it affects me.

Further, "By downloading copyrighted materials, we transgress the 2nd precept." It's not that simple.

@Algernon - I think our situations are at least somewhat similar. I too have about a decade of training invested in my field. I too will work for free as part of my trade. And I too really don't want anyone else to make money off of what I am freely giving.

I like Petteri's suggestion as well... It reminds me of the many councils and committees for the arts and humanities that exist out there (on national, state, and local levels). The idea being that people are paid fairly up front, so that the distribution of the product doesn't need to be policed, instead it can be celebrated.

Algernon said...

I know only a little about community-funded film projects, but what I have heard sounds very good to me. It is a way to invest in a produict and do some work without having ones labor being exploited for others' private profit. (Private profit would be fine, but in that case the people who made the product should be enriched as well.)

Nathan said...

"What about people in Mexico or villages in India, etc. Sure, they won't starve for lack of access to the information we take for granted, but there does seem to be a very real and consequential "information gap" in the world. Kids who grow up with money in London or New York can pretty easily access the greatest libraries in the world, anything their hearts and imaginations might lead them to. Kids in rural places are extremely limited. By making more available on the internet, we break down those barriers. In America this is already happening, with lots of tax money from rich cities being spent to create digital infrastructure in rural areas, but that's just America..."

This is exactly what I was thinking about. I've never made squat financially, and yet being a highly educated, urban dweller still allows me more opportunities than a majority of people on the planet. So, I rarely opt to download something copyrighted.

However, given the myriad of economic and access issues, it's not a clear cut, one sized fits all answer to me, either, this business about the second precept. On the same website that published that article by the Sri Lankan immigrant Buddhist that sparked so much controversy, there were two posts about living in poverty and what people do to make ends meet. One comment that really stuck with me was the idea that a lot of more well off people think poor people don't deserve to have "nice things" or things considered "luxuries." Which behind that is an implication that poverty is self made, and that said people are simply bad money managers or "too stupid" to get "good jobs." And thus, it's just too bad if they want to read that $30 hardcover, or view whatever movie is currently popular.

Those of us who have our basic needs met, and who have a decent share or easy access to books, music, movies, etc. forget that poor folks are always sacrificing. They already don't have many things the rest of us constantly take for granted. So, I can't view the decision by someone with next to nothing to download a book or a movie in the same way as I would the same decision by someone who is well off.

Gleef said...

It is relatively straightforward this day and age for an author to license their works so that a site like Buddhisttorrents can freely distribute their works legally. For one example, Thanissaro Bhikkhu does this with his translations of the Pali Canon. Check out the copyright and licensing notice at the bottom of his page. This sort of licensing can easily be accompanied by instructions on how a person may offer dana to help support this kind of work.

On the flip side, if such licensing doesn't exist, we have to assume there is a good reason it doesn't exist. One common reason is that it was developed in conjunction with a commercial publishing house, people other than the author invested time and money into the production of the Dharma Book, not out of generosity, but out of their attempts to maintain a right livelihood.

I see it as a lesser mistake than stealing a book from the bookstore, or a library, or a neighbor's house, since with a torrent, the book is still there for others, but it is still taking something that's not freely given, it's disrespecting the efforts, the livelihood of others.

I'll be honest, there are times I do this, I haven't checked out buddhisttorrents, but I have read a dharma book or two that wasn't properly copied or licensed (not to mention other media). But it's a bad habit, one that produces negative karma, especially in how doing so cultivates a sense of disrespect in me towards those people who have poured their effort into bringing the book (or music, or movie) to others, as if their decisions on how their work was to be handled didn't matter as much as how I felt their work was to be handled.

Nathan said...


As a writer, and a former editor, I see the points you're making. I also want to be able to make something of a living off of my writing as well, even if it's just a small part of my overall income. And certainly, if a book of mine is developed by a publishing house, I'd want to make sure those involved are getting supported financially for their work in making the book.

The thing is, though, that like Barry, your take on this doesn't seem to consider those who have little or no access to dharma books, or anything of the kind, due to financial poverty (and regional poverty i.e. no public libraries or other facilities nearby to borrow such material.)

More to the point, perhaps, what if we replaced books with food or clothing. Would the answers here be the same?

I think it's wise to err on the side of not taking anything, and to do your best to make due with what you have. However, the precepts aren't black and white commandments - and I'm not convinced that every act of breaking book license is also breaking the second precept.

Gleef said...


You might notice notice I didn't say anything along the lines of "shut down the torrent site", or "people who do this are evil and always wrong".

I've been poor enough to be wondering how to feed my household (but never so poor as to stop wondering that). When push comes to shove, I know I will steal to meet the needs for my life and the lives of dependents. Food, clothing, housing, moments of beauty, even dharma can be needs.

But, as I do so, I would be foolish to believe that doing so produces no negative karma.

I would not condemn anybody who steels food to survive, or clothing to keep warm and dry, or dharma books to help them figure a way out of the social and economic pit that they find themselves in.

I do however, recall that, during a period of time when I was downloading a lot of unlicensed copies of music, I found myself talking myself into being bitter at the record companies for their "stupid" licensing, talking myself into thinking I knew better than them how their music should be distributed.

I felt I had a real need, there was very little music in my life, I was depressed, and I desperately needed something to help me better connect with my emotions, to help release them (this was long before I started practicing meditation). But looking back now, I see that, in the process of meeting that need, I was feeding myself on the three toxins: greed, anger, and delusion. A diet like that can only lead to trouble. Extreme need or poverty doesn't protect anybody from such troubles.

Actions have consequences, life is more skillful if we have a clearer understanding of those consequences, and that's where I was coming from in my comment.

Nathan said...

Thanks for the expanded comment Gleef. That clarifies for me where you're coming from, and I agree with how you're viewing it all as well.
Definitely the point that theft brings with it consequences, however tiny they might be. And it's vital to understand that in order to live a more awakened life, regardless of what we end up doing moment by moment.

Anonymous said...

I think all of that is pretty silly, I would think Buddhists would be most likely to want to share their information regardless (or not care!). In any case, I will not be going to 'dharmatorrents' or downloading any of the books there, but neither will I be reading them at all. So, is the desired result achieved? Were my actions significant either way? Of course not.