What is the halachic background to copyright law? Does the Torah have a concept of intellectual property rights, meaning that someone who creates or invents an item is owner of his invention? May a rav prevent people from taping his shiur? May one copy computer software or music disks?
We will IY”H provide the background and history behind these issues. Our purpose is not to paskin anyone’s shaylos but to introduce and explain the subject matter. An individual should ask his own shaylah from his own rav.
For our purposes, we are dividing the topic into three subtopics:
1. Copyright. Does a publisher have rights protecting him so that he has the opportunity to recoup his investment? Assuming that such rights exist, do they apply in all cases, or only if it is a new publication? For how long are his rights protected?
2. Intellectual property rights. Does someone who wrote a book or created an invention own rights to future sales of this book or this invention? If he does, for how long do his rights last?
3. Conditions of sale. Can a seller or manufacturer stipulate that a buyer may not copy the item sold?
WHAT RIGHTS DOES THE PUBLISHER HAVE?
One of the earliest published responsa on this subject deals with a very interesting sixteenth century case. One of the gedolei Yisrael of the time, the Maharam of Padua, Italy, entered a partnership with a non-Jewish publisher in Venice to produce a new edition of Rambam. Maharam invested a huge amount of time checking and correcting the text for this edition, included notes of his own, and apparently also invested significant amounts of his own money in the undertaking. A competing publisher, also a non-Jew, produced an edition of Rambam (without Maharam’s corrections and notes) at a greatly reduced price, apparently out of spite that Maharam had engaged his competitor. It appears that the second publisher might have been selling the set of Rambam at a loss with the intent to ruin the Maharam financially. The halachic question was whether an individual may purchase the less expensive edition of the second publisher.
The shaylah was referred to the Rama for decision, who ruled that the second publisher’s actions constitute unfair trade practices. Rama prohibited purchasing or selling the second edition until Maharam’s edition was sold out. Realizing that the non-Jewish publisher would not obey his ruling, Rama reinforced his ruling by placing a cherem (decree of excommunication) on anyone selling, buying or abetting the sale of the competing edition (Shu”t Rama #10). This was an effective way of guaranteeing that Jews did not purchase the less expensive (but inferior) edition.
Subsequent to Rama’s ruling, it became common practice for publishers to include in their works a cherem (plural: charamim) from a well-known posek banning the publishing of the same sefer, usually for a period of ten to twenty-five years. The purpose of these charamim was to make it financially worthwhile for the publisher to invest the resources necessary to produce the sefer. Thus, these charamam encouraged publishing more seforim and the spread of Torah learning.
Generally, these charamim protecting the publisher’s rights were accepted and obeyed. However in the early nineteenth century, an interesting dispute arose between the Chasam Sofer, the Rav of Pressburg, and Rav Mordechai Benet, the Rav of Nikolsburg, germane to the production of the famous Roedelheim machzorim. Two competing editions of these machzorim were produced, the first by Wolf Heidenheim, who had invested much time and money gathering and comparing manuscripts and texts. A Jewish publishing house located in a different city subsequently published a competing edition. Prior to Heidenheim’s issuing the machzorim, several prominent rabbonim had issued a cherem banning other publishers from competing.
The Chasam Sofer prohibited the second publisher from selling his machzorim and similarly banned people from purchasing them (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #41, #79). In his opinion, this case is halachically comparable to the edition of Rambam produced by the Maharam Padua.
Rav Benet disagreed, contending that there were several key differences between the cases. In his opinion, it is unnecessary to guarantee publication of machzorim by issuing charamim. Machzorim are a common item, and publishers know that they will profit from producing them. Thus, the entire purpose for which these charamim were created, to guarantee the production of seforim, does not apply. Furthermore, since non-Jewish publishers will certainly produce machzorim, issuing a cherem against competition will benefit the non-Jewish publishers, who will be faced with less competition, more than it will benefit a Jewish publisher such as Wolf Heidenheim. In addition to the above legal arguments, Rav Benet did not consider the second publisher to be unfair competition for a variety of reasons (Shu”t Parashas Mordechai, Choshen Mishpat #7, 8).
The Chasam Sofer responded by contending that since Heidenheim had invested time and money in checking and correcting texts, his business interest should be protected. Chasam Sofer even contended that Heidenheim’s monopoly should be allowed for the entire twenty-five years decreed in the original cherem, even after he had sold out his first edition. This was because the investment had been so great that it required multiple editions to recoup. This leads us to a new discussion.
WHAT IF THE FIRST EDITION SELLS OUT?
May a competitor produce a new edition if the first edition was sold out before the terms of the cherem have been completed? Some poskim contend that the cherem becomes void at this point. They reason that the purpose of the cherem has already been accomplished since the publisher successfully sold out his first edition. The goal is to encourage the production of more seforim, and that will be best accomplished by opening up the market to any publisher who is willing to produce the sefer (Pischei Tshuvah, Yoreh Deah 236:1, quoting Tiferes Tzvi. PT there also quotes Rav Efrayim Zalman Margaliyos as disputing this conclusion but does not explain his position.).
Support for this position can be brought from an interesting halachic decision rendered by the Rosh and quoted by Rama (Choshen Mishpat 292:20). In a certain community, there were an insufficient number of seforim available for people to study, but there were individuals who had private seforim that they were unwilling to lend. The local dayan ruled that these individuals were required to lend their seforim since their reticence was preventing Torah learning. Apparently, individuals challenged the ruling of their local dayan and referred the shaylah to the Rosh. The Rosh agreed with the dayan, although he stipulated that each borrowed sefer should be evaluated by three experts and that the borrower must provide the lender with a security deposit in case of damage or loss (Shu”t Rosh 93:3).
The question here is upon what halacha basis did the Rosh insist that these individuals relinquish their seforim? After all, it is an individual’s prerogative to lend his property. Clearly, Rosh contended that an individual’s rights are surrendered if people are deprived of Torah learning as a result. Similarly, the right of the publisher is rescinded after the first edition sells out if the result is that less seforim are available for study.
DOES HALACHA RECOGNIZE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AS OWNERSHIP?
This shaylah came to the forefront in the middle of the nineteenth century, also as a result of a din torah. Around 1850, a printer named Yosef Hirsch Balaban published a large-size edition of Shulchan Aruch with major commentaries, accompanied for the first time by the anthologized commentary, Pischei Tshuvah. (This is the Pischei Tshuvah that was referred to above in a note and is often quoted in these articles.)
Balaban was sued in beis din by a printer who claimed to have purchased exclusive rights to Pischei Tshuvah from its author. At the time Pischei Tshuvah had been printed only once, in a small-size edition including only the Shulchan Aruch and one other commentary. The plaintiff claimed that Balaban had violated his exclusive ownership rights to Pischei Tshuvah.
This writer is aware of three tshuvos on the shaylah, each reaching a different conclusion.
The Rav who precided over the din torah, Rav Shmuel Valdberg of Zalkava, ruled in favor of Balaban for the following reason. The original edition of Pischei Tshuvah did not include any statement placing a cherem against someone printing a competing edition. Rav Valdberg contended that this voided any copyright on Pischei Tshuvah. Furthermore, Rav Valdberg included two more reasons to sustain his ruling. One, the original edition of Pischei Tshuvah was no longer available. Thus even had a cherem banned a competing edition, it would have already expired once the first edition had sold out. Second, even if the first edition was still available for sale, Balaban’s reproducing Pischei Tshuvah as part of a multi-volume set of Shulchan Aruch was not competition for the original edition where Pischei Tshuvah had been published as a small, presumably inexpensive sefer. Rav Valdberg reasoned that no one interested in purchasing Pischei Tshuvah would likely purchase Balaban’s edition of Shulchan Aruch just for that purpose; instead he would buy the small edition (assuming it was available). Thus, he did not consider Balaban’s edition to be unfair competition for those looking to purchase Pischei Tshuvah.
According to Rav Valdberg’s analysis, the author of Pischei Tshuvah has no greater ownership to his work than someone publishing a different person’s work. His latter two arguments, that the first edition was already sold out and therefore the cherem expired, and that the multi-volume set does not compete with the one volume edition, would both be preempted if we assume that the author retains ownership over his work. Thus, Rav Valdberg did not believe that halacha recognizes intellectual property rights. Sho’eil uMeishiv (1:44) took issue with this point. He contended that the author of a work is its owner. Thus, Pischei Tshuvah retains his rights as author/owner whether or not a cherem was declared against competition. A cherem is to guarantee a publisher enough time to recoup his investment. An author is an owner, not an investor, and maintains ownership over the item produced which he is entitled to sell, regulate, or contract. This is called intellectual property rights.
A contemporary of the Sho’eil uMeishiv, Rav Yitzchok Shmelkes, also ruled against Balaban but disagreed with Sho’eil uMeishiv’s reasoning (Shu”t Beis Yitzchok, Yoreh Deah 2:75). Beis Yitzchok contends that halacha does not recognize intellectual property rights as inherent ownership. In Beis Yitzchok’s opinion, the author has a right of ownership but only because it is accepted by government regulation, what is called dina dimalchusa dina, literally, the law of the government is binding. Although halacha does not usually accept non-Jewish legal regulations, a civil law established for the wellbeing of society is sometimes accepted. Since intellectual property rights encourage initiative and invention that are in society’s best interests, halacha accepts these ownership rights to the extent that they are recognized by civil law.
There are several key differences between the position of Sho’eil uMeishiv and that of Beis Yitzchok. According to Sho’eil uMeishiv, the ownership of an author exists forever just as any other property that he owns. Upon his passing, they are inherited by his heirs, just like his other property. However in Beis Yitzchok’s opinion, the ownership rights extend only according to what is established by government regulation and expire after a number of years. Moreover, in most countries a copyright is valid only if registered, and it must also be indicated in the published work. Presumably this was not true in the Beis Yitzchok’s place and time, since he applied civil copyright law to Pischei Tshuvah even though the author had not indicated any copyright in the sefer.
Thus, whether halacha recognizes intellectual property ownership is a three-way dispute, Rav Valdberg rejecting it, Sho’eil uMeishiv accepting it, and Beis Yitzchok contending that it depends upon whether such ownership is assumed in the country of publication.
Incidentally, there is evidence that the Chofetz Chayim agreed with the Sho’eil uMeishiv’s position. The Chofetz Chayim left specific instructions detailing who owns the publishing rights to his seforim after his passing. He instructed that his seforim on loshon hora could be freely republished and that Mishnah Berurah may be published by anyone, provided that 4% of its volumes printed are donated to shullen and batei medrash. However, he stipulated that most of his seforim could not be republished without permission of his family members and that the proceeds from such publication should succor his widow for the rest of her life. Chofetz Chayim’s instructions imply that he considered his ownership to be in perpetuity. Furthermore, Chofetz Chayim did not publish any words of cherem or copyright inside his seforim. Thus, he seems to have presumed ownership over future editions of seforim on the basis of intellectual property (Shu”t Minchas Yitzchok 9:153), although it is possible that he based it on dina dimalchusa dina, following the opinion of Beis Yitzchok.
MAY A RAV PREVENT PEOPLE FROM TAPING HIS SHIUR?
On the basis of the above discussion whether halacha recognizes intellectual property rights, one might suggest that someone giving a shiur may restrict the taping of the shiur on the basis that he owns the shiur. However, in a responsa on the subject Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that a rav may forbid taping his shiur but for totally different reasons. They are:
The lecture may include material that should not be circulated without supervision.
Subsequently, the rav may change his mind from the conclusions he reached in the shiur, or the shiur may include ideas that are conjectural.
He might be embarrassed later by the opinions he stated when he gave the original shiur (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:40:19).
In the same responsum, Rav Moshe rules that if the rav permitted the shiur to be taped, he may not prevent people from reproducing these tapes for sale (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:40:19). This implies that Rav Moshe holds that the rav cannot claim ownership of the shiur on the basis of intellectual property, certainly not to the extent held by the Sho’el uMeishiv.
Rav Moshe also rules that if someone is selling copies of a shiur, it is prohibited to make copies without permission of the seller. This takes us to the next subtopic in our discussion.
IS IT PERMITTED TO COPY A TAPE OR DISK?
Does a seller have the halachic right to stipulate that a buyer may not copy the item sold? This shaylah takes our discussion in a new direction. Until now, we have been discussing whether halacha prohibits publishing a competing edition to an existent work. Now our shaylah is whether one may copy what he purchased when the seller stipulates that he may not.
As we saw above, Rav Moshe rules that this is prohibited unequivocally and is an act of stealing, since you are using someone’s property in a way he has not permitted. Numerous other contemporary poskim also rule this way (see Mishnas Zechuyos HaYotzeir; cf. Shu”t Shevet HaLevi 4:202).
Some poskim contend that copying disks may not be considered stealing, although they also prohibit doing so for various other reasons. The line of reasoning why they do not consider it stealing is very instructive.
There are basically two ways that a seller can limit how a purchaser will use an item after the sale. The first is by placing a condition on the sale. If the buyer subsequently violates the condition of sale, the sale becomes invalid, and the buyer has used the item without permission. According to halacha, using someone’s item without permission is stealing. Thus, by voiding the condition of sale, the purchaser has retroactively made himself into a thief.
However, there is a strong argument against this position. If indeed the sale has been voided, then the purchaser is entitled to a refund of his purchase money. Since the seller has no intention of providing a refund to everyone who copies his tape or disk, clearly he did not intend this stipulation to be a condition that invalidates the sale.
There are two other ways that the seller can enforce rights not to copy his material. One is halachically referred to as “shiyur,” which means that the seller places a partial restriction on the sale. In this case it means that he sold the right to use the tape but not the right to copy it. Some poskim contend that one should assume that computer programs, tapes etc. are sold with these stipulations. It appears that Rav Moshe Feinstein held this way.
There is a second reason why it is prohibited to copy this material. Most computer software agreements specify that the programs are licensed, rather than sold. This means that the seller has rented the right to use the equipment but has never sold these items outright. Using the items in an unapproved fashion thereby constitutes using an item I have rented in a way that violates my agreement with the owner. Therefore, copying these items against the owner’s expressed wishes is certainly a violation of halacha.
In addition to the above reasons, many poskim point out that it is not good for a Torah Jew to use something in a way that violates the implied trust he has been given. There also might be a halachic issue of violating ve’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, loving your fellowman like yourself, since if you published software or disks you would not want someone else to copy them.
Based on the above discussion, most of us will realize that we have probably been following certain practices without verifying whether they are halachically permitted. It behooves us to clarify with the posek we use whether indeed these activities are permitted. For example, may I photocopy a page of a book for educational purposes? Does it make a difference whether it is being used for Torah purposes or for a secular use? (See Shu”t Shevet HaLevi 4:202.) May I make a copy of a tape or disk if I am concerned that the original will wear out? May I make an extra copy of a computer program and use one at home and one at work?
Clearly, a Torah Jew must be careful to follow halacha in all his financial dealings and arrangements. Ultimately, this is the true benchmark that measures what is considered kiddush Hashem in this world.