Buddhist torrents is a web site which hosts links to many dharma texts online for free, check it out at: http://buddhisttorrents.blogspot.com/
My first though, looking at the site, was more or less: holy 2nd precept Sariputra! isn't downloading off the internet taking whats not given?
The Dharma Wants to be Free
But there's also the 3rd precept, which—a little surprisingly—applies in this case as well: no intoxication of self or other. We have a pretty good idea what this means in terms of drugs and alcohol: a good Buddhist is neither a drug dealer or liquor store owner and is moderate in their consumption so as not to carelessly violate other precepts due to lapsed judgement. But how does the dharma come into it? Some scholars think of the the dharma as a form of intoxicant, that it should be given freely and never sold, and that over zealous application of the sutras is a form of intoxication, this is part of buddhisim's internal defense against fundamentalism but how does it relate to modern copyright law?
A Test Case
I downloaded a pdf of Shobogenzo, Dogen's Spiritual Masterpiece, here's the copyright notice in the front matter:
First Edition—2007 © 2007 Shasta AbbeySo there's one with a license to redistribute, but many other works don't carry such 'copyleft' licenses, and many of the links have already been removed due to DMCA takedown request. Not every rights holder is willing to let their work be freely copied, most of these are large publishing houses who are accustomed to monitoring the Internet for leaked copies of their work as part of the cost of doing business in our information economy.
This work is offered for free distribution only.
You may print and distribute copies of this work
as long as no changes are made to the original.
Otherwise, all rights reserved.
Further complicating matters is the traditional role of sutra copying in Buddhist practice. Hand copying of the sutras is considered a meritious activity and is practiced to this day, the original impetus for this is clearly to preserve the dharma in the ages before mechanical printing made copies cheap and readily available, the modern practice revolves around having a deeper connection to the text than simply reading it.
Sutra copying is a Buddhist practice and a special way of doing Japanese calligraphy. It is the art of copying a Buddhist sutra with awareness and it brings together the ideals of genuine shodo [japanese caligraphy]. Shakyo harmonizes body and mind and through their integration creativity flows freely.
- Sutra Copying by Nadja Van Ghelue
I have personally spent some time copying my favorite translation of the Dhammapada from print into a text file for online reading, and the experiance of closely reading each passage and double checking to assure accuracy is completely different than just kicking back and soaking up some Dharma. However, the translation is still protected by copyright so I can't legally distribute my copy.
The Bottom Line
While access to the Dharma is important support of Sanga is equally critical to maintaining a healthy community of teachers. To that end I purchase as much as I can, but it seems excusable to me to take copies if the cost is prohibitive or the source material is rare, especially if one has renounced and has limited funds. Which is a bit of an odd position to take: violating copyright protection to access the dharma is probably OK for monks and those less fortunate. However, it seems clear that if you have the means, supporting the teachers is part of your duty as a member of the sangha.
In either case it doesn't hurt to be mindful of the 2nd precept when downloading stuff off the Internet, people expend effort to create these works, and we should remember to honor their contribution to the spread of Buddhism.