25 November 2011

Taking the Not-given

I've just come across the website Buddha Torrents which specialises in linking to illegally copied and uploaded Dharma books. You would have thought that facilitating the stealing of Dharma books would be a no-brainer - just don't do it - but many Buddhists apparently feel quite comfortable with theft of electronic files when they would not walk into a shop and steal the physical book. Let me just be quite clear here. Copying is theft. All those pirated books, DVDs, and CDs are stolen. There is no grey area here. Consider the wording of the second precept:
adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi
I undertake the training step of refraining from taking the not given.
Since I've covered the general outline of the precepts in other posts [1] I'll just concentrate on the main word: adinnādānā. The Pāli word dinna means 'given, granted, presented'. It's a past participle of the verb √ 'to give'. In a Buddhist context it frequently refers to alms given to bhikkhus. The word is used in the negative adinna 'not-given, not-granted, not-presented'. The other part of the compound is ādānā which is a noun from the same verbal root. The stem dāna means 'that which is given, donated, granted', while the prefix ā- reverses the direction and gives it the meaning 'that which is taken, taking'.

If we take a step back into the Proto-Indo-European roots of the words, we see that the original form was *do meaning 'to give'. The word comes into Latin as donum 'gift' from which we get the English words donation, & donor. The root also underlies the words date, and time. [For more on this branch see the Online Etymological Dictionary].

So our word is a-dinna-ādāna 'taking the not-given'. In the precept verse the compound is in the ablative case - giving the sense of 'I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given'.

Clearly this is a precept about property. You cannot take someone's property against their will except by force or deception. If they give you everything they own of their own free will, in full knowledge of the consequences, that's fine. But if you take even a penny without being first offered it, then you are involved in doing something to that person against their will, i.e. doing violence. So it's not only about property, but an extension of the first precept against causing harm, with a focus on property.

It is true that as Buddhists we preach that we ourselves should not be attached to material possessions. I tend to agree with the line of reasoning that an abundance of material possessions causes more misery that it prevents. However without a roof over our heads and food to eat most of us don't cope very well. So ruling out all possessions for everyone would cause more pain that it relieved. It's not up to us to judge for other people what constitutes a minimal level of possessions. The precepts are carefully phrased in the first person: samādiyāmi 'I undertake'. It is we who undertake the training and our judgements should be directed to ourselves. So our non-attachment should make us less likely to take what is not given (in theory). If we feel that a close friend is in danger of breaking this precept, we might have a quiet word with them, tell them what we have observed and related our concerns in a kindly way. But there is little scope for standing in judgement on others. This creates a tension for people raised to believe that justices involves determining guilt, and meting out punishments.

However Sangharakshita has expanded the context of this precept beyond material possessions. He includes things like a person's time or their energy. If someone doesn't have time for us, we should not try to detain them. If they don't want to, for instance, listen to our problems, then we cannot make them. Each time we take the not given we seek to negate the other person; we seek to impose our will, and our ego, over theirs. It is a subtle form of violence. So this precept can be seen as an extension of the first precept against doing violence to other beings.

I'm going to assume that we understand the problem of doing violence and move on to consider some more specific issues.

In 2000 the internet music sharing service Napster was taken to court by the the band Metallica along with rapper Dr Dre. A separate case was brought by several major record labels. Judges ruled that Napster were indeed breaking the law by facilitating the sharing of illegal copies of music. But for some reason this remains a grey area. Lots of people I know are copying and not paying for music, films, and software. If what was being shared was physical property the issue would be clear cut. We would not condone either the burglar, nor the fence, nor any part of an operation which facilitated someone stealing our property. But apparently we are happy to do so with music. Music is different of course. Digital music is immaterial, very easily reproduced or copied, and it is very difficult for the average consumer to relate the mp3 file back to the performer.

Musician's make their livelihood from selling that music. There are some who are saying that the new media calls for new models of distribution and ownership. I notice that these people are typically already successful and wealthy, i.e. they do not have much to lose. They usually got into the position of being successful and wealthy by selling albums the old fashioned way. Start up bands, with no money, are not so convinced that giving away their music is such a good thing. Once you give people something for nothing you set up expectations.

Some people argue that so much money is made that it hardly matters if a few copies are made. But this is not an argument from Buddhist ethical principles. It seeks to bypass the principle of not taking the not given, and replace it with taking what will not be missed. And who says it won't be missed? The music industry say they are missing that revenue and record labels and music shops are struggling to stay in business. Whether or not this is good for the music is irrelevant to the Buddhist ethical case, because someone has come out and explicitly said: "do not copy this music without paying us for it." Music is not given except within the limits set out by music industry. Whether or not we think these limits are moral, ethical, or legal, is irrelevant because the relevant precept is about the not given. And outside the framework of buying CDs of MP3s the thing is not given.

There is such a thing as fair use. For instance in this blog I often cite the words of other people, from books and articles that form the basis of their livelihood. On the whole they ask that we do not copy their work wholesale, or use it without acknowledgement. So I quote little bits and endeavour to accurately state where the text comes from. This seems fair enough, and if we did not have this provision then any kind of dialogue about literature (scholarly or otherwise) would not be feasible. Indeed I believe I have raised the profile of several authors by bringing their work to the attention of a new audience.

I also use images. Images are usually classed as a whole work, so copying them is usually considered to be outside of fair use. I try to use images that are clearly free of copyright restrictions. Sometimes it's hard to tell, and I have to confess that I sometimes interpret fair use in my favour. I still stick to stating where I got the image, and when it's clear who made it I make sure I include that information. My purpose is to decorate a blog post, not suggest that I am an artist. I suspect that I could be criticised for this practice, and I'm always ready to remove images without a fight. So far no one has ever asked me to remove an image from this blog. But I would if asked to, even if fair use suggested I might get away with it. I do get a few pennies a day from Google ads and Amazon referrals but given the time I spend on this it could hardly be called a profit making venture. In my books, however, I had to be a lot more assiduous about observing copyright because the law says that where you are selling something then fair use provisions don't apply. I can't make money from someone else's work. This seems fair to me.

Buddhists are not always scrupulous when it comes to the internet and taking the not given. I have had several people copy my entire mantra website, for instance, and present it as their own work. They get quite hostile when I tackle them on the illegality and immorality of this. I've been called some nasty things because I've acted to protect my work from being degraded by poor copies. But taking the not given seems clear enough. And unless we take such principles seriously then we aren't likely to make progress, so it's in our best interests to keep the precepts.


I've had second thoughts about my addendum, and have removed it.

Related Posts with Thumbnails