The same issues I have blogged about in relation to academic file sharing site aaaaarg.org have been (predictably) arising elsewhere, including most recently — and a little less predictably — in the world of online Buddhism.

This particular discussion got started by an announcement at Buddha Torrents that they have been asked (rather politely) to stop sharing files of books online. In reply, Justin Whitaker at American Buddhist Perspective posted a thoughtful rumination on the ethics of downloading dharma books, with a call for a new business model and a nod to the experience of the music industry. A further post goes into more depth.

The most common argument in defense of Buddha Torrents is the same as the arguments defending aaaaarg:

“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…”

I’m not keen on the idea of digital ads in books, but the point about second-hand books is a good one. People have been making money from sharing files, with nothing of that going to the creators or publishers, for a long time. That’s because once you’ve bought a book, you’ve bought the rights to that copy of the book (though not to the words in that copy). E-file-sharing simply extends what you can do with that copy, but it extends it by magnifying it indefinitely.

This line covers the attitude my faithful Christian grandmother had toward thieves:

“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.”

Over at another conversation, You Will Suffer My Love asks “What counts as stealing?”, and observes that

When Facebook sells your personal data to corporations it is all 100% legal, but this ought to count as stealing. When Bradley Manning leaked information that ought to be made public it is illegal but ought to count as sharing.

The Buddhist discussion continues at Dangerous Harvests, where Nathan cites Thich Nhat Hanh’s elucidation of the second precept of Buddhism:

“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.”

The bigger picture Thay puts on this — and on the system that profits from suffering — is most welcome. I’ve emphasized the line “not to possess anything that should belong to others” because I wanted to highlight the assumption that’s being made here about the simple spatial location of property, i.e., that what I would possess cannot also be possessed by others. This doesn’t apply to texts: my having a book does not prevent another from having it, too. So the question is: what’s the “right relationship” between my having something and the person responsible for making that thing in the first place? It’s a question of labor and its sharing, which is the same question the Fair Trade movement has been addressing for years.

My thinking on this, as I wrote here, is that, yes, we do, desperately, need “a new model of digitally accessed texts with flexible copyrights, scalable pricing, incentive, and availability structures, and other things we couldn’t have dreamed of just a few years ago.” All of which means we need a system that’s more sensitive to the complexities of how things are made, shared, and used in a digital world, and that is more just to all in the process.

But, then, maybe that just means we need a system as complex as the village market was before capitalism came along. What capitalism did, among other things, was that it (a) built trade highways where there had only been winding trails (which is neither good nor bad in itself, except for the loss of those trails, the woods surrounding them (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course), and those whose livelihoods depended on them), (b) established “rules of the road” for those highways (which is good), (c) disembedded them from the relations and mutual obligations within which trade had occurred previously (which is probably not so good), and (d) ensured that those willing to live more disembedded (bourgeois) lives would do better in the new system than others (which is bad, because it institutionalizes greed and selfishness and encourages heedlessness to the “indirect” effects of one’s actions, beyond the bare-bones trade relation itself).

But back to books. In my case, I don’t at all mind people accessing my books freely, electronically. But where it matters to someone’s livelihood that books not be made available in this way — i.e., where the person depends on sales receipts, and where electronic access isn’t part of some larger distribution system or strategy whereby the author can make a living — then books probably should not be shared publicly by third parties. I’m emphasizing the word “publicly” because I think there’s a difference between using a text within a closed-access or subscription-based system, say at a university which is already paying for a book or journal article to be available to its community members, and just putting it out on the open internet. The latter might constitute theft, at least if it is intended to gain a profit for the party that shares what isn’t theirs to share.

But then are Buddha Torrents sharing books for profit, or just for the glory of the Dharma? The answer, I’m sure, is closer to the latter than the former. On the other hand, whatever one posts online helps to build a certain online profile, so “profit” could become as slippery a term as “theft” in this context.

My rule of thumb is this: Do what’s right, true, and beautiful, and keep in mind your obligations to others. Those include the obligations you incur through sharing other people’s work, but also the obligation for sharing what’s good and helping others find it, too.

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