Friday, August 14, 2015

Translation and Copyright

I watched a fascinating web series on intellectual property (IP) the other day, which got me to thinking about how copyright, which is absolutely everywhere nowadays, affects translators. Rather that getting bogged down with the ins and outs of the law, since it differs from country to country, I'm going to look at the general concepts of IP while focusing on copyright and how it affects translators.

The symbol for copyright-free, like all
the images we use on The Lingua File.
Intellectual property is a concept whose goal is to promote the advancement of the human race and encourage people to make more, create more, and design more. Since there are few things more encouraging than money, it manages to do this by giving those who create things a temporary monopoly so that they can make money on their ideas.


What kind of thing you create dictates what kind of IP protection you can get. If you invent something, your invention can be protected as a patent. Of course, you can't patent things that already exist. Generally, patents are defined as new, non-obvious inventions with an industrial applications.


A trademark designates a brand rather than a product. The brand indicates the product's origin and can be a powerful thing. Brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Microsoft, for example, exist so that consumers know that the products they buy and use come from one of those manufacturers and not from competitors such as Pepsi, Burger King, and Apple.


This is the area of IP that should be of interest to those who, like me, are translators. Copyright generally covers what we would consider artistic creations, as it does not cover ideas or concepts, but rather how they are expressed. Everywhere is a bit different, but things covered by copyright include:

Written works, books, poems, plays, motion pictures, films, television shows, music and recordings, paintings, sculptures, and photos. While this list isn't exhaustive, you start to get the idea. Most of a translator's workload will include copyrighted materials.

I'll admit, sometimes when I translate I get a bit of an ego. When I reconstruct a sentence in a marvellously clever way, I genuinely believe that the translation is my baby, my creation. However, under most copyright law, particularly here in the UK and in the US, my creativity can sometimes be considered the copyright of the original author.

Derivative Works

This is when translations are deemed to be derivative works, and why wouldn't they be? I did use the source text as the "inspiration" for my work. Derivative works often include translations and cinematic adaptations. You could even argue that cinematic adaptations of literary works are actually translations, since they use a source material to create a target material.

The only way you would get to keep the copyright would be if you could prove that your work has a certain level of originality. This is almost impossible as a translator if you are trying to be faithful to a source text. However, if you have been given a certain level of freedom, you could argue that your own creative inputs have provided the necessary originality. As long as your translation isn't part of a work for hire...

Work for Hire

A number of legal jurisdictions include the concept of "Work for Hire" (WFH) as part of copyright law. This means that no matter how original you've been, you cannot claim copyright over your translation when the work was done as part of your salaried work, rather than in the freelance sense.

So how do you get copyright for your translations? Ask nicely, I suppose...

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