If the Pali canon (Tipitaka) is a Sangha monopoly, do we then have all rights for all translations?

So we sangha fixed Tipitaka - Pali canon, and we move it through the centuries. We have all copyrights for those texts. This mean we have all rights for translations also. For example if somebody will post Thai movie in different translation on youtube. The owener of rights for movie in original language can ban this movie in other languages, or get money for advertise which appeared, during watching of the movie, he can do whatever he want with translations of his movie. So I think same working for Sangha and her Pali tipitaka texts. We can share other translations wherever we want, we can delete e.t.c. This mean we can post texts like petakopadesa without permission. What do you think?


wouldn’t that be the Buddha (after all we must believe that the Cannon is his word verbatim)? and if not, by what legal instrument did he transfer his copyright to the Sangha?

but scratch all aforesaid, isn’t the Canon in public domain?

translations are a separate object of copyright not associated with the copyright of the original text

i don’t know how accurate the statement is, but here

If the work exists in the public domain then a translation automatically retains copyright as an original work.


I think this is an important argument, and should be considered very seriously. We should consider two aspects, which I believe apply to all Buddhist traditions.

  1. What is the copyright law?
  • Traditional Buddhist texts (in original languages) are in the public domain (since their creators died more than 70 years ago.)
  • Translations of these texts are copyright of the translator until 70 years after the translator’s death (in most jurisdictions). If the translator transferred the rights to a publisher (a common practice) the publisher holds them for the same period. The copyright holder can choose to relinquish some or all of their rights by means of Creative Commons or similar.
  • The primary purpose of copyright law, at least in theory, is to ensure an income for creative artists.
  1. What is the Buddhist tradition?
  • There is no concept of copyright or intellectual property in Buddhist tradition. So far as I know there is no precedent for a translator to be considered the “owner” of their work. Rather, all translated texts are felt to be “the words of the Buddha” in exactly the same sense as the original. (A similar sentiment applies also to works created by people other than the Buddha.)
  • Nevertheless, the monastic Sangha has always been regarded as the traditional custodian of the texts. Of course, the monastics have always relied on and worked with the lay community, but the primary authority and responsibility rests with the Sangha.
  • The Sangha never uses the texts for its own gain, but only for the benefit of all humanity.

It is only in modern times, in fact the last few decades, that claims of ownership of Buddhist texts began to matter. Prior to that, my feeling is that few people in the Buddhist world really took much notice or cared what copyright was or what it meant. In practice, the fact that our texts were being made available at all in a modern context was seen as amazing, and we were grateful for that. It’s also no secret that copyright law is essentially ignored throughout Asia—though perhaps this is changing—so no-one regarded it as a big deal.

In the internet age, of course, it is different. We all have the tools for copying and distributing Buddhist texts. However, if we do this with copyright material, we are regarded as criminals, even though from our perspective we are simply doing what every generation of Buddhists has done.

So what are we to do about this? Well, the immediate thing is simply to create work in the public domain. In my view, the monastic Sangha should do more than this, however.

There is a growing recognition that it’s inappropriate to treat traditional cultural artifacts under normal copyright law. In the case of indigenous peoples, their art, stories, or music has frequently been “borrowed” by westerners, who then claim ownership over it (and make a lot of money). Since there is no-one who can be identified as the creator of such things, there is no recourse under copyright law. Of course, this is more than a commercial matter: such artifacts often have a deep spiritual significance for their people.

I would argue that we should use this as an analogy for the Buddhist texts. The Sangha is the traditional custodian. Any use of such texts should be in conformity with the traditional values of the Sangha, i.e. it should not be restricted by copyright.

This does not, in my opinion, mean that the texts cannot be sold. I think it’s perfectly valid to say that making them available commercially enables them to reach new places, or to be created in forms that would otherwise not be possible.

What it means is that there is no restriction placed on free distribution. Someone can choose to sell a published book, but the text is also available freely on the internet, etc. There is little or no evidence that doing this reduces the profitability of texts.

I would love it if the monastic Sangha would be persuaded of the significance of this, and advocate for traditional Buddhist values to be recognized in international copyright law.


I think, to be copy righted the compilation has to be in writing.
If I just write a song in my mind it is not copy righted.
It will be copy righted only if I write that in a paper or electronic media etc.
Bhante Sujato can correct me if I am wrong.

It doesn’t have to be in writing, but it does have to be expressed in some (fairly) fixed form; an unrecorded song, for example, is still copyright.

What do you mean by fixed form?
Say, you sing a song (make it on the spot), I remember it and go home and write in a paper.
I have the copy right unless you can prove it that you sang the song before I wrote in the paper.
Isn’t it?

One of the problems with intellectual property law is that corporations and wealthy individuals are using patent and copyright to control ideas, things, biology, and creative works over which they, the patent or copyright holder, had no real role in the creation of the original, valuable work; eg: Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs). They then use the power of their treasury to stifle other creative work, limit expression of ideas, control ancient or natural things, or to terrorize developers of new products who are then fearful of lawsuits that they cannot afford to defend. In other words, perhaps there are entities claiming rights to early Buddhist texts and other related writings that have no legal or actual right to exclusive control of these writings? Or, should there be an exception for translations of the early texts, such that no translator ( who had no role in the creation of the idea or text) has any right to control the use of the text? By way of absurd example, I could translate tonight the English version of the Dhammapada into Pig Latin. Should that give me the sole rights to anything, including my translation? I’d argue, no. My facility with Pig Latin added nothing of creative value to the source material. I could sell my translation, but not control it, considering the ancient and longstanding public domain status of the original text.

It would be good to see a concerted effort to identify organizations that claim to have copyright on ancient Buddhist texts, or derivations from those texts. I’m not informed about how these handcuffs on these texts currently exist, and who the organizations are holding the keys to the handcuffs, but starting a nonprofit center to research this issue for the Sangha, and perhaps exert some leverage on entities that claim copyright control on texts that would ( or should) otherwise be in the public domain, would be an interesting endeavor.

Edit: Naturally, I wrote the above ramble with very little intimate knowledge of the subject. Later, I found an interesting, well written page that might shed some light on the concern.

The copyright originates in the fixing of creative expression. So basically anything that’s repeatable.

In the case that you mention, no, the original creator owns the copyright, as long as it was genuinely a “song”, i.e. a formal and structured piece of music (as opposed to an unrepeatable improvisation, although even then there would be a claim, I suppose, but impossible to prove unless it was recorded.) The fact the you wrote it down before the creator did is technically irrelevant, it doesn’t grant you any rights. Of course, if it came to court, it may win you the legal case, as long as you’re prepared to lie about it in a court of law.

Indeed there are. Some cases I am aware of:

  1. Organizations claiming copyright over scripture (this is very common, in fact probably the normal situation.)
  2. When texts have been released under a licence or fallen into public domain, publishers still make claims over them, sometimes using coercive methods to inhibit publication (the Japanese translation of the Pali canon is the most prominent example of this, but not the only one.)
  3. People with no rights over translated material nevertheless making claims and issuing takedowns. (This has happened to us.)

Since copyright law is almost exclusively weighted to favor the claimant, the legal status of such claims is dubious. In my view, however, it is clearly the case that such cases are against the spirit, and quite probably the letter, of copyright law. You can’t simply go around claiming to own things that you don’t, in fact, own.

The crucial thing to bear in mind in all this is that the theoretical purpose of copyright law is to protect and foster creative activity. Even supposing that this was relevant in the case of translations of Buddhist texts, this clearly is not happening. There are almost no publishers who actually sponsor translators to work on Buddhist texts, and those that do—primarily the Numata Foundation—have independent funding. We feature the work of dozens of translators on SC, and so far as I know, none of them did so expecting or wanting any profit. There is basically zero evidence that avoiding copyright will affect the creation of translations.

Moreover, the argument that publishers make material available is problematic at best. One of the major unrecognized cultural shifts in the digital age is how publishers have gone from being content distributers to being content obstructors. Anyone can distribute material nowadays, you don’t need a publisher to do that. One of their basic jobs, rather, has become to identify and prevent any distribution of “their” content through any channels other than their own. Content obstruction has become a multi-billion dollar global industry. The vast majority of such requests are handled by a few huge corporations:


And thanks for the link to the article. I agree with everything they say, in fact it sounds like something I might have written myself! While I have little experience outside the sphere of Buddhism, it seems that the legally baseless practice of making copyright claims on ancient texts is widespread.

While the author alludes to it, let us be clear: the work done on an ancient manuscript—no matter how skilled or laborious—does not confer copyright. This is a recognized legal doctrine known as “sweat of the brow”. Copyright exists to protect original creative work, not editing. In the publication of ancient manuscripts, any original material—introduction, notes, and the like; but also the design of the book—falls within the scope of copyright, but the text itself does not.

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The whole issue of the copyrightability of translations is interesting to me. Translators of ancient texts ( say from the Pali into English) can claim a copyright on their translation despite the fact that the effort involved seems very similar to the “sweat of the brow” involved in editing, assembling, compiling, and/or anthologizing. I’m not diminishing the incredible talents and capacities of competent translators of difficult languages ( Pig Latin being my strongest second language), but it strikes me as antithetical to ( as you stated, Bhante) the idea that it is the creative force that copyright is designed to protect and encourage. So, publishers aggregate texts, hire translators and then copyright the output, so that the ancient texts are either sold for profit, or are kept in quarantine (away from scholars) until the publisher decides to release them. I suppose what I am arguing is that for certain categories of texts ( such as ancient scriptures) translations should enjoy no standard copyright protection.

I agree, as someone who has done both original creative work and translation, they are quite different kinds of things. The job of a translator is precisely to not express themselves, but to make themselves transparent so that the original text can speak through them. Nevertheless, that is the normal legal situation.

One point: publishers—at least in Buddhism—rarely hire translators. With rare exceptions, as I noted above, translators do their work without any support from the publisher.

The situation is akin to normal academic publication, where typically neither the author nor the editor receives any financial compensation, and all of the revenue, as well as the ownership of copyright, goes to the big publishing houses. Who then charge 20 dollars or more to download a pdf, while reporting greater profit margins than oil companies or banks.


With Buddhist texts, is it the case that it is academics that are doing the translations for purposes of, say, a Ph.D., and they then lose control of it to a publisher (such as a university press)? Or, with the Buddhist texts, so we see that monastics are doing translations, and then having their work coopted by publishers, who sell the work product for profit? In this case, we might see an opportunity to identify copyrighted works that were, in fact, coopted, and then mount some kind of campaign to have them released . Maybe I am imagining some kind of mechanism that doesn’t exist, but if there were texts that deserve to be on SC that are wrongfully quarantined, it might be interesting to try to get them back into the public domain.

It’s not that they’re “co-opted”, but the translator signs a contract to assign the rights to a publisher. This happens both with academics, monastics, and others.

I think this is an absurd model. Why on earth does a publisher need to “own” the intellectual rights? I can see how this would be relevant in cases with many stakeholders, which require extensive investment by the production company (like, say, films and tv). But when the publisher invests nothing in the translation, why should they own it?

In digital models like lulu.com, the author retains the rights, and contracts the publisher to perform services for them. In this way, a translator can contract editorial service, proofreading, typesetting, distribution, publicity, and the regular services that a publisher performs. This seems to work fine.

Sorry for appearing thick, but why would a translator (even a Ph.D. candidate) agree to sign over rights to a publisher? Is it simply so that the academic is published? I suppose that could be the quid pro quo for a young academic trying to get published. But for monastics, and others not seeking to climb a ladder toward tenure, I’m curious as to how the publishers get their greedy hands on these works. Again, in my utopia, a Sangha nonprofit might be a resource for monastics that educate them about protecting their work product from predatory practices, or give them direction as to how to publish their work in an ethical public domain forum, instead of turning to a for profit publisher.

Mostly because it’s just the done thing. Everyone does, so you go along.

The real product here is not knowledge or even money: it’s prestige. For a young academic to be published by a “reputable” house is a big boost for their career. Never mind that publishing it themselves would let them reach more people and enhance global culture.

Prestige is, of course, just a māyā. It’s got nothing to do with quality, but about perception. The academic gets a job, the university gets to boast about its published authors, the publisher makes money, everyone is happy.

Sounds like a great idea. In practice, publishing in traditional Buddhist cultures usually ignores copyright anyway, so it’s an issue for the West, which—sad but true—has become the source of most meaningful global Buddhist resources.

One of the things I hope to see through SC is that our content and service is not merely convenient and free, but a higher quality than anything offered by commercial publishers. My hope is that over time we show that a first class resource can be developed in the public domain.

The irony is that this is already normal in plenty of non-Buddhist spheres: the single most installed and most powerful operating system ever is Linux, which is free and open source. 50% of computing devices use it, 97% of the internet, 98% of supercomputers, and so on. The digital world runs like it does because Linus Torvaldis decided to make his operating system free.

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It’s already a first class resource. What you are pioneering here is truly exceptional. I’ve read of Linus Torvaldis’ story, and he’s a fascinating, seemingly selfless tech geek ( in a good way) gentleman. What you are creating, and supervising in collaboration with so many talented people, is a game changer at least in terms of bringing the Dhamma to every person around the globe with a laptop or phone, in a very comfortable, open and accessible way. I recall from one of your youtube talks when you asked “why do we study the Dhamma?” the answer being that the Buddha was only the best teacher/person that ever lived. So, to the extent that people around the globe seek this Dhamma out, or seek refuge from the suffering of this world, you’re making the Dhamma as inviting, correct and accessible as Linus did with his operating system. Very cool.

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