Advocacy of Free Information Sharing and Distribution by St. Augustine of Hippo

For a possession which is not diminished by being shared with others — if it is possessed and not shared, is not yet possessed as it ought to be possessed. The Lord saith, “Whosoever has, to him shall be given.” He will give, then, to those who have; that is to say, if they use freely and cheerfully what they have received, He will add to and perfect His gifts. The loaves in the miracle were only five and seven in number before the disciples began to divide them among the hungry people. But when once they began to distribute them, though the wants of so many thousands were satisfied, they filled baskets with the fragments that were left. Now, just as that bread increased in the very act of breaking it, so those thoughts which the Lord has already vouchsafed to me with a view to undertaking this work will, as soon as I begin to impart them to others, be multiplied by His grace, so that, in this very work of distribution in which I have engaged, so far from incurring loss and poverty, I shall be made to rejoice in a marvellous increase of wealth.”

From Book I, Chapter I of On Christian Doctrine, Augustine’s book on interpreting Scripture.

As a podcaster, I am happy to report that Augustine is absolutely right. The more audiobook readings I give away, the more I learn and the more stuff I find to read! 🙂

RIAA and WMG, take note! Music doesn’t disappear by being shared; therefore the easier its distribution becomes, the more the publishers collect money from the various online music stores. The harder the distribution is, the more people steal songs or never know about a song at all, thus making it a worthless property. 🙂

Seriously, though, I wonder whether St. Columba had encountered this quote when (in his pre-saint days) he got into his famously acrimonious copyright dispute with his teacher by sneaking out to the library at night to copy out an imported psalter. Would St. Augustine have thought that “to every cow belongs its calf” in this situation? How could a book of all the Psalms possibly be diminished by being known? Why was his teacher so stingy about allowing copies, anyway? Trying to recoup the expense and trouble of importing the book? Trying to increase travel to his monastery by having a particularly desirable book?

Of course, St. Augustine had his own problems with people copying and distributing his manuscripts without permission, even when they were still in the first draft stage. (I think it was the lack of editing and potential distribution of wrong versions that really bugged him. Although it would be creepy to find out that everybody and their uncle were reading your book when you were still trying to write it!) But I think his feelings on copying the Bible would have been quite different. Every Jew and Christian in the civilized world knew and sang the Psalms for recreation as well as worship. Even pagans might know something of them. It was common knowledge, not a secret.

Of course, with distribution of good complete copies of the Psalms so low in early Christian Ireland in Columba’s youth, I expect that they weren’t exactly swimming in copies of St. Augustine’s works, either.

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