Copyright Protection in Jewish Law

In recent centuries, Jewish law has developed tools for regulating the rights to intellectual property.


While the legal basis is different from that of copyright law in most modern nations, Jewish law developed its own mechanism for preventing others from republishing someone else’s work. Unlike Rabbi Mordechai Bennet’s ruling, cited in this article, copyright protection explicitly prevents others from copying–without reference to whether the publisher (or author) has sold out his first edition, recouped his investment, or decided to discontinue further printing and selling (even if this hinders “the work of Heaven.”) The author of this article refers to print publications and videocassette tapes, but rabbinic authorities have applied the principles of his argument to other media as well, including computer software.Reprinted with permission from The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Jason Aronson).

The advent of printing created a new Jewish industry, the writing and publishing of books for a mass market. With increased standards of living, this has become even more pronounced in our present society, together with the proliferation of radio and video cassettes. In all its forms, the publishing industry means an increased supply of knowledge that is to the public benefit. Judaism’s insistence on Torah study, not merely as something desirable or important, but as a perpetual religious obligation on every Jew, irrespective of his age, education, or economic status, makes the use of this increased supply of knowledge an essential ingredient of Jewish life.
Unlimited competition would increase this supply and lower its costs, thus making extensive Jewish education possible and so contributing to the public welfare. On the other hand, authors would be fearful of writing. Entrepreneurs, moreover, would be wary of investing in publishing or marketing of books and cassettes, in fear of not being able to recoup their investment, including their profits, owing to fierce competition. So the custom of haskamot, rabbinical decrees forbidding competitors from republishing books without the consent of the author and the publisher, became common. This has been extended by present-day authorities to include tapes and cassettes.

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Dr. Meir Tamari, former chief economist in the office of the Governor of the Bank of Israel, is director of the Center for Business Ethics at the Jerusalem College of Technology. His books include Al Chet: Sins in the Marketplace (Jason Aronson) and Jewish Values in Our Open Society: A Weekly Torah Commentary (Jason Aronson).

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