Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhism and Intellectual Property Rights: The Role of Compassion

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhism and Intellectual Property Rights: The Role of Compassion

Article excerpt


A claim to intellectual property rights (IPRs) allows a period in which the rights holder is entitled to a monopoly on the use of the property and in which he/she can gain monetary returns. International commerce has resulted in claims of intellectual property rights in nearly every country around the world. However, these claims are frequently controversial. Defenders typically argue that IPRs are necessary as an incentive for creative work and innovation that can be beneficial to the world. Critics argue that by holding a monopoly, the rights holder can create an unjust situation in which the patented product carries an unusually high price in the market. When the product is a necessity, such as life-saving medicine, those who are in need of the product might not be able to afford it. The monopolistic nature of IPR claims, then, can become a source of inequality and injustice.

The controversies created by the use and enforcement of IPRs in various fields point to the need to explore the very foundation of the concept of IP. In this paper, I will consider how Buddhist ethics might regard the problem. My basic question is: How could the concept of IP be modified into an ethical one? A related question is: How might concepts available from Buddhism have a role to play in such modification? These are very complex questions. Here I merely hope to provide a general outline for the further development of a theory based on Buddhist philosophy. I argue that the notion of compassion (karuna) is central to answering these questions. Compassion is the desire to alleviate the suffering of others and acting to bring this about, so long as this is possible. Hence the holder of an IPR is said to be compassionate when she sees the suffering borne by her fellow human beings and, realizing that the intellectual property to which she is entitled can alleviate that suffering, acts accordingly. Here "compassion" is not only a term that denotes the subjective feeling of one who is compassionate, but also the objective and concrete actions that the compassionate perform to act out these feelings. I further argue that she should act in this manner because this would be beneficial to everyone in the long run, including the rights holder herself.

Buddhism and the Concept of Property Rights

A central teaching of the Buddha is that in order to achieve the final goal of liberation, a practitioner must learn how to eliminate ego grasping. Ego grasping consists of thinking in terms of "me" and "mine." The two are always intertwined. Without the "me" there can be no "mine," and vice versa. Thus, from the perspective of this central teaching it may seem that the Buddha has a negative attitude toward property--for property is always the "mine" of somebody. It would further seem that to achieve the goal of nibbana, one must relinquish all property, not taking anything as belonging to "me" (nor thinking in terms of a "me" to begin with).

On the surface, the idea that one must let go of one's property might seem to be a teaching that recognizes no personal property at all. The Buddha's teaching to his followers that one should abandon grasping according to "me" and "mine" could be regarded as advocating a kind of utopian regime where everybody lives together peacefully without any concept of personal property rights. However, the Buddha did not intend to start a social or a political revolution. Although he advises his students to let go of attachment to personal property, he nowhere advocates any change in the political and legal structure of the society in which he happened to find himself. Furthermore, in the Vinaya, the second Defeat (parajika) rule emphatically states that monks who take what does not belong to them and which costs more than five masakas will be expelled from the Order, never to return. We do not know exactly how much a masaka was worth, but we do know that it was enough for a thief who stole property worth more than that to be imprisoned, banished or executed (DK). …

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