Sheikh, will it be permissible to download Islamic pdf books from online for personal use, educational reasons etc. without intending to earn money through it?Websites like internet archive and waqfeya.net allow you to download a wide range of useful Islamic books for free. Sometimes these books are payed for. Will it be permissible to download them? Will we have to take into consideration copyright laws etc. If I could I would probably try and buy my books, but I can’t really do that because I’m still 15 and don’t work, and I don’t want to constantly ask my dad to buy me different books. Is there difference if the author has passed away? Like for e.g if I want to download Fathul Bari of Ibn Hajar or Umdatul Qari or I’laa us Sunan, which are classical books for free, would it be permissible? What are the rulings pertaining to this?
To understand this answer, we need to delve into the spirit of the law. We have to contend with the fact that PDFs of books are widely available in the public domain; the custom of using them is prevalent and one can do so without much impunity. Nonetheless, certain shar‘ī guidelines should be upheld.
Firstly, one should recognize the objectives of copyright law: it attempts to retain an asset’s profitability and restrict others from reproducing and subsequently financially profiting from the asset of the original owner. In line with this understanding, Muftī Taqī ‘Uthmānī writes that one is able to use PDFs for personal use and share them with friends; but, they are not allowed to reproduce PDFs for reselling (Fiqh al-Buyū‘, 1:286).
Additionally, there are a few further lines to draw in the book market. There is the academic market and the consumer market. The consumer market is driven by sales, and thus PDF copies affect them. One should not use PDFs for books in the consumer market; though, if one has bought the book on the consumer market, using the PDF would not be unethical.
For the academic market, their profits are based on library and university subscriptions to their academic press. Thus, a PDF copy in the public domain does not necessarily affect their sales as they have already made their money by receiving subscription from libraries and universities. Academic books are priced far too high for private consumers and are thus not priced for public consumption. Their intended target audience is expected to be subscribed to a university or a library, thus allowing them access.
With specific reference to Arabic books, there are some further considerations. Some older copies are not copyright protected, some only restrict republishing, while others are inaccessible or priced for specialists and libraries. If books are within one’s means and they can access them, using PDFs would be unethical. If one cannot afford a specific book, or cannot access a book, using a PDF copy would not be unethical.
The important thing here is to respect the broader aims of copyright law. As PDFs are in the public domain already, the cat is out of the bag and cannot be put back in. Thus as Muslims, we should approach this issue with these broader aims in mind.
I hope this clarifies the issue.
Ifta Research Fellow
Checked & Approved by:
Mufti Abdul Rahman Mangera
Mufti Zubair Patel