Sunday, August 21, 2011

To Share or Not to Share

The mind is a funny thing, to be sure :)

I thought taking the copies of the Visuddhimagga down would bring peace of mind, but it didn't really... only doing the right thing can bring peace of mind, I think. So, what is the right thing? If one is truly in danger of legal prosecution, it is better to avoid that, I think, surely. But it does seem fairly likely that there is no such danger in this case. The copyright is quite clear that reproductions and redistributions are allowed, provided that the copyright is included (check), the source document is cited (check), and the copies are provided free of charge (check). What, exactly has been violated?

It seems there are at least three issues the BPS has with these files:

  1. they are cracked - apparently in Windows, it is possible to password encrypt a PDF so users can't even copy and paste text from it. Linux either ignores (pdftotext) or overrides (pdftohtml) such things, so I wasn't even aware of either a password or the non-copy restriction. The new files created were not crippled by any such DRM. The BPS is afraid this will allow other publishers to take the text and republish it for free, which has been done in the past.

  2. they are reformatted - in order to fit on an eBook reader, pdftohtml was not enough; the formatting in the new files isn't set for lines on pages, it is set for continuous flow on the page - necessary for eBooks.

  3. they are out of the control of the BPS - it's not exactly clear what form this point takes, but it's quite clear that their feeling is, given the ownership of copyright, the BPS should have total control over the distribution of this text.

The problem is, none of these points seem to be in violation of the copyright. I suppose number two might, if indeed the copyright can be read to require only exact copies of the file. Cracking DRM is generally understood to be legal, provided the copyright is not violated, and the copyright is pretty clear in allowing for distribution by other parties. As for the requirement for copies to be exact, that seems to be contradicted by the third clause in their copyright:

Copyright © 2011 Buddhist Publication Society.
You may redistribute this file provided that: (1) you must only make such cop-
ies available free of charge; (2) you clearly indicate that any parts of this work
reproduced into other publications are derived from this source document; and
(3) you include the full text of this license in any copies of this work. Otherwise,
all rights reserved.

As I asked before, what meaning could this clause have if it were not allowable to alter any part of the text in the first place?

It appears that the intent of the publisher in this case is to offer the PDF as a token, in the hopes that it will encourage people to buy (or at least not discourage from buying) the hard copy version; there is an advertisement to that effect in the eBook itself. It seems to be their concern that offering a no-strings-attached ebook would pave the way for making their hard copy books unmerchantable, which would in turn cause difficulty for their organization.

My problems with this are as follow:

  1. if the texts can be produced and distributed for free, as proven most wonderfully by the Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation in Taiwan, what need to sell books in the first place? It is the opinion of this monk that the BPS is actually shooting itself in the foot by restricting access to the dhamma and charging money for the works of dead monks; it is demonstrably true that donation-based religious organizations prosper far better than pay-to-play ones, the BPS's troubles being a clear demonstration thereof.

  2. when the existence of an organization depends upon its ability to control the distribution of dhamma texts by long dead authors who held no copyrights of their own, one need question the goodness of that organization in the first place. Does the BPS do good work? Definitely. Could this work be done by a donation-based organization offering open-source dhamma books for free with no strings attached? Even more definitely. In the course of our argument yesterday, I was instructed:

    If you feel that you have the right to put Nyanamoli's work online, then try to transcribe and format the original handwritten manuscript.

    to which I replied:

    If you would make it available to me, I would be overjoyed to do that.

    I believe this was calling a bluff, since the next email asked:

    Why don't you go and make your own translations and distribute them, rather than copy and distribute works prepared by others?

    It seems clear from this about-face that there is no argument from the "stealing our work" point of view, since even though I and many others (the 25 volunteers that transcribed this text are a good example) are willing to do the work for free, the BPS will not allow access even to the original manuscripts, over which they hold a copyright.

  3. It seems quite clear that by holding on to the "citadel" paradigm of content distribution, the BPS is gaining nothing and losing a lot. They could learn a lot from the open source community, how intertwined it is with Buddhist values and how noble are the aims of the people therein. It is quite strange to note that Mark Shuttleworth has a better grasp of such things as giving than the editor of the BPS:

    That’s the magical thing about creation and ownership. It creates the possibility for generosity. You can’t really give something you don’t own, but if you do, you’ve made a genuine contribution. A gift is different from a loan. It imposes no strings, it empowers the recipient and it frees the giver of the responsibilities of ownership. We tend to think that solving our own problems to produce a patch which is interesting to us and useful for us is the generosity. It isn’t. The opportunity for generosity comes thereafter. And in our ecosystem, generosity is important. It’s at the heart of the Ubuntu ethic, and it’s important even between competitors, because the competitors outside our ecosystem are impossible to beat if we are not supportive of one another.


    That's a quote from the ex-CEO of an IT corporation, not a Buddhist monk.

So, the question now is what to do? Whine and complain? Move on? Or put the books back up? I guess I'm ambivalent, willing to swallow the lump in my throat and move on, but hoping somehow that there is a better way whereby we can all move forward in truth, peace, and happiness. Any and all thoughts will be appreciated (nasty ones may not be published, though :) ).


  1. Well to reply your question:

    I liked to pick "move on" as the correct answer : )

  2. Jenn Lamond4:19 AM

    personally i would move on, let them have it. you know that you were doing the right thing and not doing anything illegal and thats what counts right?

  3. I'd move on too...with the sure and certain knowledge that your intentions were good and worthy.

  4. wow I don't know what exactly is going on here but the point is Newton doesn't have a patent for discovering gravity. If I'm going to work on Newton's discovery, I still cannot patent it ( Likewise, the Buddha simply discovered all the phenomena in existence. However, I'm not assuming that everybody can emulate what he did. Neither did he file a patent nor proclaim that others can't spread the Dhamma. In fact, Buddha sent the monks in all directions to create awareness about reality. Ufff... seems like Hitlers are holding the Dhamma. Let's see for how long they can hold on to it :)

  5. I am very astounded at this business. In my view, it is in very bad form for anyone to come out the door, so to speak, threatening litigation.

    I would whine, go sit alone in a body of water for a while and then I'd move on down the road (or path).

    And there are others as baffled about this - several pages of them:

  6. Nyanatusita comments about others questioning this public domain/translation issue on page 2 of the above link.