How are translations secured?

Good point. Bhikkhu Analayo seems to have had agreements for his books to allow free distribution after a certain period which seems a good compromise.

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Wisdom Publications, the publisher of the Bhikkhu Boidhi translations, is a non-profit charitable organization. That means that what you pay for Wisdom’s books goes entirely toward either covering Wisdom’s labor and material costs, or to its charitable contributions. Among other things, they supply free books to incarcerated individuals.


I too believe this is the case. But nothing stops authors like BBodhi to make an extra effort and pursue ways to adjust arrangements to make best use of the internet as a vehicle for propagation of their translations.

Maybe it is the case that such well intended publishers could name a fair value to allow for the publishing on websites like SC?

I see translations as being kidnapped by this situation but no one is able to name a price for the release of the hostage!

Part of what I hear Bhante rightly saying is that the Dhamma should be absolutely freely available to everyone, anytime, anywhere, in all languages, but that artificial restrictions and commodification of translations have blocked the Dhamma from its originally intended free distribution. He’s right.

I’m reminded of the comments of the Nestle CEO who suggested that water is a commodity that should not necessarily be considered a right for people to have. Perhaps Nestle’s next move will be to secure rights to the air we breathe, and sell breathing rights in communities. Nestle’s CEO might be an evil profiteer, and even a bit cray cray, but the crass absurdity of his views on water as a property right gained some global infamy.

The same can be said of what has happened to the Dhamma. It has been co-opted by publishers and packaged and sold, thus limiting its availability to all people in all places. I’m of the legal view that copyright protection should not extend to translators/translations. The work of translators is clearly expert and difficult work, but to extend the same legal treatment to translators as we might to authentic inventors of novel products, or authors like Herman Melville, is beyond the pale. Cottage industries have developed for lawyers that patent arcane ideas or systems and then look for people to sue. Others have patented entirely natural compounds or processes found in nature and have attempted to control their use and distribution. Facebook owns a trademark for the word “face.” True! Intellectual property laws have “jumped the shark,” and the net result is that harm has been created, and the distribution of culture and ideas stifled.

We all agree that the Buddha’s teachings as incorporated in the Pali Canon were intended to be freely distributed, and that no person owns a copyright over the Pali Canon. Yet, by affording translations the right of copyright, we have effectively thrown a wrench into the express wishes of the Buddha and his monks and nuns: that the teachings of the teacher be distributed and taught freely. In some cases, the words of the Buddha are controlled by corporations and sold only to those that can pay the price.

So, huge props to Sutta Central, that’s all I can say. The world will have free and unfettered access to the Dhamma, in many, many languages, and the translations will be clear, accessible, modern, and meaningful to boot.


He certainly prefers his translations to be freely available.

Indeed, I have spoken with him about this. But it depends on what arrangement he can make per publisher. His major translation work, together with Rod Bucknell, is the Madhyamagama, which is with Numata. In that case, the work was originally undertaken with sponsorship by Numata, and even though most of the original team has left, it is still under the same contracts. Numata do make their texts available, but only after a few years. His Samyukta Agama translation is under no such limitations and is freely available, including on SC.

Believe me, I have tried. In my view, it is not about money: it’s about prestige. No-one actually makes much directly from these translations, but keeping them under the same roof lends a halo to the house, which adds value to everything else.

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As I said in a message above: This is the case in the Netherlands. We have most of the nikayas translated but they are rather pricey compared to the English translations. That’s not so strange: translations for a smaller language-region cost the same but there are less people to buy the translations.

The error you and bhante SUjato are making, is, as I already said, that copyrights don’t restrict the Dhamma to people with money, but make them available to people with money.
Everyone who is up to it, can make a translation for free, but don’t expect people whose income depends on it, to do this.

Let me copy what DKervick already said:

And when such a thing happens, how long, do you think, will rice continue to be produced - or, if you take the baker’s bread without paying, how long will he still bake bread for you?

Even for monastics this “free” idea does not work, I dare to say.
Without monastics doing something in return for their lay followers, I think lay people supporting monastics would end very, very quick.

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Leon, I understand the analogy but, respectfully, I don’t think it applies.

The express essence ( if I can use that word) or mandate of the Dhamma, is that it is free, and open, and unfettered. Like the air. Like water. The Buddha spent his entire adult life traveling and teaching his Dhamma, fully intending that it be open and available. He might have chosen another course, but he didn’t. I feel that that approach to unfettered access to the Dhamma should be understood and respected.

It is understood that if you want rice from a rice farmer, you need to perform work yourself and earn the funds, or the barter rights, to acquire the rice. That is how rational economies work. But the Buddha never intended that his Dhamma be a commodity (like rice or bread), and so it should not ever, in any way, be treated as such.

What you’re presenting is the practice of dana, which I feel is not relevant to the discussion of the commodification or monetization of the Dhamma. Monastics aren’t selling their teachings. My sense of dana is that of a mutually appropriate symbiotic relationship; the monastics benefit the laity with teaching and practice and the laity, in turn, benefit the monastics with necessary support.

The Buddha’s Dhamma is not a commodity that can be sold. The Buddha’s Dhamma is there in Pali, free for everyone to read.
I don’t know Pali except a few words. What if I wouldn’t know English and only Dutch?
Because of the work of the translators, of the publishers, I still could get to know the Dhamma by the Buddha’s own words.
If you and bhante Sujato got your way and if I would not understand English, there would be virtually no Dhamma at all for me. Translators wouldn’t have worked without being paid to feed their families. Nor would the publisher.
Would that situation have been better?
I don’t think that is what the Buddha intended.

Sorry, forgot this:
That is exactly what economy is about. Someone gives you something and you do something in return. That is how the world functions. And it doesn’t always have to be paid with coins and paper money. Even economists look at it that way.
In Dutch we have a saying, maybe there is a similar one in English: only the sun rises for free.

Close to that:

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

If anyone is interested in more discussions on copyright, there is a long [thread]( on Dhamma Wheel.

Some reflections offered for consideration:

Up until a few a few decades ago, there was no internet. Now we can sit in our warm homes, push a button, and access the works of Shakespeare, the paintings of Rembrandt and Watteau, performances of the plays of Aeschylus, the poetry of Kalidasa and Li Bai, the news read to us in Chinese, Russian, Arabic or Spanish, music of every known human variety, and lectures on almost every topic under the sun. This is nothing short of a modern miracle. And it has been made possible by a vast amount of human labor, often onerous labor, sometimes in the commercial sphere of life and sometimes performed gratis, at least to some degree.

There are also translations of original Buddhist texts all over the internet, in dozens of internet locations, and in a wide variety of languages - not to mention the staggering mountain of scholarship, secondary literature, and dhamma talk podcasts one can access. A hundred thousand university educations are available to every person who can access the internet. A few short years ago, none of this existed. When I was a boy, if I wanted to learn something about Buddhism, I would have to go to my local library, where maybe they would have a slim anthology like E. A. Burtt’s The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, or a highly slanted text like Carus’s The Gospel of the Buddha. If I went to the bookstore and shelled out money, maybe I could get some book on modernized Zen from Suzuki or someone similar. That’s it. Was I being deprived and denied my rights? Hardly. And now I read the Pali Canon online and speak about Buddhism with people abroad! Given this absolute deluge of material from this whole new world, far more than a mortal human could ever absorb in a thousand lifetimes, it never occurs to me to imagine things are being held “hostage” somewhere.

There are no artificial barriers preventing material to “flow” freely into our massively entitled modern laps - unless perhaps one is talking about the restrictive blocks placed on web traffic by some governments. Nothing at all is preventing any person with the necessary time, inclination, material support and skill from doing their own translations and distributing them in whatever manner they wish - even simply posting them on the internet for free. Bhante is doing that here right now, in part because he is fortunate enough to have a patron who is willing to support that work. Put the name of any sutta you like into your internet search field, and it is almost certain several translations will show up. What? They aren’t the translations you want? They don’t meet your standards? Somebody owes you gifts of more translations?

By the way, the electricity that is pumping into my home right now, and that is permitting me to read these things, and also to communicate live with you good people from many different countries, comes from a coal-fired electricity-generating plant in my town. The coal was dug out of the ground by miners who don’t get paid much, and who tend to die young from black lung, a common hazard of coal mining. I feel grateful for their work all the time, and even a bit guilty. The world doesn’t owe me electricity, and I doubt the amount they get paid for what they do is really fair compensation for their labor, since it tends to reflect the very unequal and exploitative power relationships in my society. I also feel grateful for the guys who come out here to fix my electrical power lines when they are knocked out by snowstorms, even though it is sometimes - like right now - very windy and negative 12 degrees Celsius.

As I read in the Pali Canon, the Buddha picked up his bowl each day, adjusted his robe and begged his daily sustenance with eyes downcast. When he got to those houses, he didn’t say, “Hey, where are my free Prakrit translations of the Vedas! Stop hoarding them! And give me some of those honeyballs you greedy peasant!” He took with gratitude what others graciously gave him, and thanked them silently. And if those people wanted to hear some dhamma in turn, they got out of their chairs, walked or took a carriage outside the town, proceeded on foot into the forest, and then begged the Buddha or one of his disciples to teach it to them. Even the Brahma Sahampati had to beg for the dhamma, the story goes, an act which is ritually repeated by grateful Buddhists on moon nights around the world.


Hi everyone! So, in an ideal world, the buddhist sangha would have the rights over the budhist scriptures to decide what to do, because it’s their legacy, and of course, everything would be under creative commons, with a non commercial licence. For me, it makes huge sense, but the real wold is sometimes unfair. Maybe with great efforts, lawyers, money and time?? I’m just wondering.
With metta, Sol

I wouldn’t put it like that. I don’t think the fact that we are the traditional custodians gives us the right to control the texts: that’s not part of what that means. In addition, there is no meaningful Sangha body that would be able to exercise such a right. But I do think we should give guidance, and as a moral issue, anyone who respects the Buddhist tradition should work in a way that agrees with that tradition.

Again, I think normal Creative Commons licences are inappropriate. The purpose of those licences, as you can see from the very name, is to protect “creative” activity, which is the ultimate reason for copyright law. Our stance should be that transmitting and even translating our sacred scripture is not “creative activity” and hence should not fall within the scope of copyright at all. It is a traditional sacred duty of Buddhists, and all texts within that sphere should be regarded as the property of all humanity.

To clarify, I use a “Creative Commons Zero” (CC0) licence, but this is really quite different to a normal CC licence. In fact it’s not really a licence at all. CC0 exists as a mechanism for dedicating work to the Public Domain. When I make a translation, by default, most legal jurisdictions would consider that as falling under copyright. I don’t want that, so I need a way to make it legally clear that copyright doesn’t apply. The reason a specific legal form is used for this is because it gets very complicated as to what “Public Domain” is, how a work can be assigned to the Public Domain, and limitations and restrictions on that. There are all sorts of legal applications of this in different jurisdictions. So using CC0 is merely a simple way to make my intentions legally clear.

I’d noticed!

The solution, I think, is just to work around it. Make freely available translations, and the issue is not so critical any more. The good news is, the traditional Buddhist culture of dana and openness is well attuned to the internet.


Just to add my two cents (mind the somewhat distant pun) into the matter- what if a text is made available free of charge …and also made available as a paid copy- just for those people who perceive value in payment, or allows for a aesthetically or materially ‘superior’ product. Some people like their Dhamma books to look a certain way, for example. It might also pay for more free copies.

with metta