Language, Translation and that Pesky Copyright Law

A few weeks ago I was surfing Portuguese-language LDS sites in Brazil, and I discovered a website with a translation of an essay by a well-known LDS academic that was first published in the early 1980s. Great news, huh! Let’s get these texts out to those who need them.

Problem is, I have a contract to publish that essay in a new book, and no, no one has given permission for the essay to be translated into any language.

This isn’t the only time I’ve run into texts like this. Some LDS websites in other languages thrive on them. The French language LDS site Idumea, for example, includes the full text of 16 books translated into French (14 of which are still in copyright, from what I can tell), all issues of the Liahona in French for 2000-2002, as well as dozens of studies from FARMS, also translated into French. Unfortunately no where on the site is the copyright status of these works mentioned. Did they get permission to do what they did? I don’t know, but I kind of doubt it.

Big deal, huh. Who cares? You might even suggest that I should be glad that someone thought the essay I’m publishing is so important and worthy that they took the time to translate it [Anyone who has translated a work knows how much time it can take. An essay like this one of 8-10 pages can easily take weeks to be done well].

The truth is, I am glad. I want Portuguese, and French and Spanish and German, Japanese and Chinese speakers to read this and the other essays. I want the 16 books and dozens of articles on Idumea, along with many more books and articles, to be available in every language with more than a million LDS speakers (at least to start). I’ve argued here before that this is important, and possibly even vital for Church members everywhere.

But I also can’t simply overlook the translation and Internet posting of this essay without permission. I’ve spent the last several weeks sending emails to the site owner asking him to take the essay off his pages. I discovered yesterday a new email address for the site owner, so hope to get a response. If I don’t, I’ll have to ask the host to shut down his site.

But I’m also open to licensing this site to post this translation, just as he has in the past, and I mentioned that in my email. My only goal is “legalization” and “control”.

Why bother? Why have I become a “control freak”? Copyright is all about control. The whole idea is for the author to control when and how his work is used. It can be for money. It can be to verify that the text hasn’t been altered. It can be to verify the accuracy of a translation. It can be to control which primary audience sees the work.

In this case a large part of my worry is for those in Brazil. I worry that a market for texts in Portuguese will not develop, because they don’t have the sources. I worry that this translation is on the web on a site that most Brazilian members don’t know or have access to, but isn’t available in the LDS bookstores in Brazil or distributed in any other way to Brazilians. I worry that this is one more text that could help build a distribution system in the portuguese language, but that isn’t available because of how this was done. And I worry that other Brazilians will think that what has been done with this text is legal.

I hope we reach an amicable solution to this problem soon. I’d love to see this essay available legally. But most importantly, I’d like to see it help build the distribution of LDS texts and products and develop LDS culture elsewhere.

9 thoughts on “Language, Translation and that Pesky Copyright Law”

  1. How does copyright law work with material that doesn’t exist in copyrighted form? I would guess that the status of a publicly available uncopyrighted translation is affected by whether or not a copyrighted translation exists, but I don’t know anything about the law.

  2. John:

    My apologies. I forget that copyright law isn’t widely known or obvious. I should have explained a basic or two about how it works.

    There is no longer any requirement for the author or translator to do anything to copyright a work. Copyright exists from the moment that a work is created, so it is not possible to have an “uncopyrighted” work or translation.

    I should observe here that translations are more complicated than most works because both the author and the translator own them. To publish or distribute a translation, you need the permission of both the author and the translator.

    Technically, the translator doesn’t need the author’s permission to translate a work. BUT without the author’s permission he can’t do anything with the translation other than read it himself. A publisher will therefore require permission from both the author and the translator before publishing the work.

    As for more than one translation, there isn’t any prohibition in the law against more than one translation. However, usually either the author or the publisher of the translation will try to limit the number of translations of an item to just one per language.

    Does that make this clearer?

  3. As far as I am concerned, current copyright law is immoral and should be illegal.

    There is only one reason for a legally enforceable copyright: solely so that the author and distributors of the work can get the lion’s share of any value brought to society through propogation of the content of the work.

    Your other reasons don’t hold water. No one worries that the King James Bible or Shakespeare “has been altered, incorrectly translated, or provided to a non-primary audience” because they are both out of copyright.

    Those are not and were never the reasons for copyright–otherwise, why do these things become unimportant *after* copyright expires? If they were important before, they would be important afterwards as well. There is only one reason for copyrights and that reason is money.

    If you couldn’t make any money writing novels, so the line of thought goes, you wouldn’t write any. Since you may bring knowledge, happiness, leisure, and enlightenment to society in doing so, society grants you “copy-right” for a *limited* time.

    Look at the old system: 7 years, with a one-time renewal possible. Max. 16 years. Back in 1776.

    Current law is 50 years after the the author’s death or 100 years from creation if done “for hire” (meaning for Disney and co). This law is tailored to provide large corporations with maximum profits, instead of serving society the best. It allows the corporations to block all distribution of new ideas and content if they cannot see profit to doing so right now, while at the same time maintaining the right to make money if a “Herbie the Love Bug” craze somehow pops up again. So they have their cake and eat it, too.

    A living breathing author, however, has very little chance of making significant money from a publication more than 10 years after its first publication, and if so, can create a “derivative work” which qualifies for a new copyright to do so.

    What would be wrong, Kent, with doing it the old way?

  4. Ryan:

    I understand your concerns, and share a few of them, but I personally feel like you are going a little too far. But in my view, your comment is really a little beyond what I expected to discuss when I wrote this post. I had hoped to focus on what to do, given that we have the laws that we do, not whether or not the laws themselves are moral.
    I think this subject will be better served if we discuss what we can do in situations like this, and I don’t think that throwing out copyright laws is a very practical approach (unless, of course, you are making an argument for civil disobedience regarding copyright laws — which somehow seems much less worthy of such treatment than civil rights and a host of other issues we still face today).
    So, please, lets not start a conversation about something that is beyond the topic of this blog. There are many forums, blogs and email discussion lists where the legitimacy of copyright is on topic.

    Lets instead talk here about what should be done with copyright violations in the LDS context. If Idumea has content that isn’t on the site legally, what should those that run it do? What shoudl the copyright owners do? Should I do something differently than what I did with the violation I discovered?

  5. You not only accept current law, you are attempting to enforce it instead of trying to find ways to “right the system”. That is why I started writing about it. As you know, something written in the early 80’s would now be, according to original law, in the public domain and you could only smile and sigh a sigh of happiness about its unexpected renewed translation and distribution in a foreign language.

    You didn’t respond to my criticism that your arguments about reasons for copyright are, in my opinion, invalid. Maybe you should be looking into your own heart instead of the laws that exist. Is this about money or isn’t it?

    But since you want solutions from your readers, here are a couple ideas:
    One thing you can do is license your materials to go into the public domain after 16 years. Or earlier.

    That way, you would be a good example.

    “Do what is right let the consequence follow . . .” and all that

    As far as Civil Disobedience goes, do you have any copies of copyrighted works at your home or business? Videos on tape or recorded to DVD? Cassette tapes? Ripped DVD’s? Sheet music?

    If you don’t, congratulations! You probably never speed and answer truthfully when your wife asks “how do I look?”. But you are in the minority. If you do, you are already practicing quiet civil disobedience. 🙂 A law that no one follows should cause us to think about who is really in the wrong. It’s hard not to find hypocrites in this area.

    To answer your question, my advice would be to leave Idumea alone. Are they making money from the work? If not, I see no reason to stop them, as there is probably no significant money to be made through that which they are distributing. If they are, demand a royalty share (15%?) from the sales. If that isn’t enough for you to litigate over, you probably won’t make enough money for you to bother with translating and distributing it anyway, right? There are much more creative ways of dealing with dsiputes than threats and litigation.

    Your stated goals are “legalization” and “control”. Why not go for morality and freedom instead? We Mormons should be the first to admit that not everything that is legal is also right.

    The LDS culture is historically very interested in control. That is the way of the past, however.

    Current copyright law causes one additional harm and that is that for 99% of authors, the danger is not being copied, but of being not read at all. Most authors can’t give their books away. This hurts the 99% to the benefit of the 1% (by removing competition of distribution).

    Most nonfiction authors live not from royalties, but from consulting, speaking, and related attention they gain from notoriety they receive from their work. Most published fiction authors are coaches, mentors, editors, teachers, etc. in addition to writers.

    What happens if you shut down the site? You disappear into nothingness for Portugese or French LDS. Your words do not exist because they cannot be read. I would look at this as free publicity, if I were you. And, if you force them to wait for all materials until they can be provided “legally”, the truth is that most of them will never see much of that content ever.

    Almost last but not least, an article of yours on the Web has nothing to do with your other distribution channel. You say: “I worry that this translation is on the Web on a site that most Brazilian members don’t know or have access to, but isn’t available in the LDS bookstores in Brazil or distributed in any other way to Brazilians. I worry that this is one more text that could help build a distribution system in the Portuguese language, but that isn’t available because of how this was done.” If they want something on the Web, don’t know it is there, but see it in the store, the fact that it is available on the Web is going to *discourage* them from buying it? Please explain!

    And, how many Portugese are ever going to get to the store to buy it or could afford the postage? Many of those who do not buy do not because they cannot. It’s easy to complain as the rich that the poor are reading our words without paying for them (Brazil=per capita GNP is 10% of the US), but at least they are reading them for now. Perhaps there simply is no market in South America because they have enough trouble eating, much less enjoying great literature. They will pay as soon as paying is easier for them than copying. Or how many of your US friends would take the time to xerox a whole book?

    Thinking that people are going to copy and pass around large amounts of our writing “illegally” is somewhat narcisstic at best and delusional at worst. It takes time and work to distribute, (what they are doing really is subsidizing your distribution–you should be thanking them, not shutting down).

    And finally, you say:
    “I want the 16 books and dozens of articles on Idumea … to be available in every language with more than a million LDS speakers (at least to start).” Well, then, they probably already are. Active church membership is probably around 4 million. Most speak English. Maybe Spanish speakers are over a million LDS, but if you count tithe-paying members, I bet that that number is significantly lower than a million. In which case, congratulations! The goal has already beem reached because there is only one language fitting your criteria and that is English.

    Even Deseret Book has been reported to be losing money for several years. If the “monopoly” in the main market of English Mormonism can’t even fund itself, how should all of these auxilliary markets have any chance to be profitable?

    The final uncomfortable answer for you is probably that the traditional model will not enable anyone to generate significant revenue from publishing LDS works in any other language besides English because either the number of members with that language is too low or their purchasing power is too meager.

    The example I provided with Germany shows that an LDS publisher can perhaps exist and provide a few specific titles a year in a sort of limited-freedom subscription model (and I assume they pay DB either nothing or a pittance to publish in Germany), but that is probably the limit of what is possible.

    As an aside, Germany is the most wealthy and developed country in Europe.

    If you think the law is broken, as I do, don’t defend it, and please don’t enforce it. The sad answer to your question may be that you can either choose to enforce your rights and remove almost all materials from the market, or you can ignore “piracy” and find another way to make money.

  6. Ryan:

    You said:
    You not only accept current law, you are attempting to enforce it instead of trying to find ways to “right the system”.

    Yes, that is right. To summarize my views on this, I disagree with your assumption that copyright laws are immoral. While I think that the most recent laws (the so-called “Millenium Copyright Act” went too far, I generally support the law otherwise. I’m very uncomfortable with your position and with a lot of the Internet-based arguments seeking to gut copyright laws.

    BUT, as I tried to make clear in my last comment, I do NOT think Motley Vision is a good forum for discussing these issues, so I will not be drawn into a discussion of what the copyright laws should be.

    You wrote:
    You didn’t respond to my criticism [of] your arguments about reasons for copyright

    That’s right. I didn’t respond, and I will not respond. This is the wrong forum for discussing these issues.

    You wrote:
    But since you want solutions from your readers, here are a couple ideas:
    One thing you can do is license your materials to go into the public domain after 16 years. Or earlier.

    Yes, that is an option open to any copyright holder.

    You wrote:
    As far as Civil Disobedience goes, do you have any [illegal] copies of copyrighted works at your home or business? “¦ “¦ If you do, you are already practicing quiet civil disobedience. 🙂 A law that no one follows should cause us to think about who is really in the wrong. It’s hard not to find hypocrites in this area.

    I mentioned civil disobedience because it is the only way, IMO, this discussion could possibly be on topic. If you are going to practice civil disobedience in this case, I think you need to justify putting effort into such actions in this case in comparison to many other areas where things like life and liberty are at stake.

    You are probably right that most of us do break the law at times in many areas, including copyright. BUT there is a pretty big difference between the kind of minor violations that you are talking about, and actually publishing or distributing a work for many people to get in violation of the law. Are you really ready to argue that laws should be thrown out because of widespread minor violations? Should we really ditch traffic laws because people speed and run red lights? If you are going to justify civil disobedience, I think you need to address this.

    You wrote:
    To answer your question, my advice would be to leave Idumea alone.

    Well, as I tried to make clear, Idumea has not posted any content that I have a claim on, so I can’t take any legal action at all. About the most I can do is to either write them an email asking about the legal status of what they are doing or to report them to the copyright owner.

    (I haven’t done either in this case. I gather, Ryan, you don’t think I should — but since your reasons are based on your feelings about the copyright law, I don’t think I can agree with your reasoning.) From what I can tell, most of the material on Idumea that may be in violation (assuming they don’t have a license) is material owned by the LDS Church, followed by a lot of FARMS material.

    You wrote:
    What happens if you shut down the site? You disappear into nothingness for Portugese or French LDS. Your words do not exist because they cannot be read.

    You are correct. [Except that I am not the author of the words.] That is why I’m looking for legalization instead of simply having the site taken down. My intent was to negotiate a license, not get the site taken down. I didn’t even ask for a dime. In this case it is truely not about money.

    You wrote:
    Almost last but not least, an article of yours on the Web has nothing to do with your other distribution channel. You say: “I worry that this translation is on the Web on a site that most Brazilian members don’t know or have access to, but isn’t available in the LDS bookstores in Brazil or distributed in any other way to Brazilians. I worry that this is one more text that could help build a distribution system in the Portuguese language, but that isn’t available because of how this was done.” If they want something on the Web, don’t know it is there, but see it in the store, the fact that it is available on the Web is going to *discourage* them from buying it? Please explain!

    As I’ve indicated, I have no problem leaving it on the website with a proper license. The problem is that I, the publisher, didn’t know the translation had been done. As the publisher, I could take this translation (with the proper rights from the translator) and make it a product, sell it in stores, and in that way help these stores become more viable. Or I could license it to several websites, and by doing it increase the author’s standing among this audience. But if I don’t know that the translation exists, its impossible to do that!

    And, how many Portugese are ever going to get to the store to buy it or could afford the postage?

    You mean Brazilians, not Portuguese. The Portuguese (from Portugal) are nearing the same income levels that we see in the US, after joining the European Union 15 years ago or so.

    Again, you are assuming that this is all about money. At least in my case it is not. I’m not trying to make money off the saints in Brazil. I want to help. I’m willing to license this text for free display on the web. But I also want to somehow make it available through LDS bookstores in Portuguese-speaking countries so that those stores have products in Portuguese to sell. At the moment, they have almost nothing in Portuguese, which makes it hard to survive and succeed.

    You wrote:
    Many of those who do not buy do not because they cannot. … Perhaps there simply is no market in South America because they have enough trouble eating, much less enjoying great literature.

    I’m afraid your view of Brazil’s economy, as well as most of South America is incomplete, at best. Yes the national per capita GDP is 10% of that in the US. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a market for books. The book market in Brazil survives on the purchasing power of perhaps 10% of the population — those that do have incomes high enough to support it. The Church has its share of this population. And since the number of LDS Church members in Brazil is nearly 1 million, these wealthy members do represent a sufficient market, IMO. I believe that at least 25,000 members in Brazil have an income high enough to regularly purchase LDS books.

    You wrote:
    They will pay as soon as paying is easier for them than copying. Or how many of your US friends would take the time to xerox a whole book?

    Again, I’m afraid its usually more complicated than you describe. In my experience, the books being copied are generally textbooks and other high-priced books. Novels are generally cheap enough that copying the novel costs more than purchasing a copy of the novel — certainly here in the US, but also, in many cases, in Brazil. [Do the math – $0.10 per page times 1/2 the number of pages in a novel often is near the cost of the book – and that doesn’t count the labor.] The copying of novels often happens when a xerox machine can be used for free (it belongs to a large corporation, for example).

    You wrote:
    Thinking that people are going to copy and pass around large amounts of our writing “illegally” is somewhat narcisstic at best and delusional at worst. It takes time and work to distribute, (what they are doing really is subsidizing your distribution”“you should be thanking them, not shutting down).

    No one is claiming that mass distribution will occur in these cases. I don’t know why you keep making these assumptions. I agree that distribution takes time and work. That’s why I’m willing to license works like this for free — so that I can subsidize this distribution. If I’m not giving them the license, then I’m really not subsidizing anything.

    Regarding your criticism of my goal of making material available in every language with more than a million speakers, you’ve changed the definition. I purposely did not limit the population to active members. I’m using the Church’s total count. So the languages with more than 1 million speakers includes Spanish, and probably Portuguese also.

    You write:
    Even Deseret Book has been reported to be losing money for several years. If the “monopoly” in the main market of English Mormonism can’t even fund itself, how should all of these auxilliary markets have any chance to be profitable?

    You are assuming that Deseret Book’s supposed financial difficulties are due to the weakness of the market and not to their own internal difficulties.

    You wrote:
    The final uncomfortable answer for you is probably that the traditional model will not enable anyone to generate significant revenue from publishing LDS works in any other language besides English because either the number of members with that language is too low or their purchasing power is too meager.

    I think that your position is demonstrably not true in the US. A number of companies are making money in the LDS market, and generating enough revenue, if not significant revenue. Even Deseret Book before the merger with Seagull/Covenant was generating at least tens of millions of dollars a year, if not hundreds of millions. Their costs may have also been that high, but this is clearly significant revenue, if not necessarily profitable revenue.

    The example I provided with Germany shows that an LDS publisher can perhaps exist and provide a few specific titles a year in a sort of limited-freedom subscription model (and I assume they pay DB either nothing or a pittance to publish in Germany), but that is probably the limit of what is possible.

    Well, that is fine for German, with some 30,000 or so Church members. I’m quite certain that Spanish, at least, has enough members with roughly equal the income of the German saints to do much better than that.

    Again, let’s do the numbers. Raw Spanish-speaking members of the Church number at least 3.5 million. Assuming an activity rate of 20%, that 50% of members are adults and assuming that 10% of members are wealthy enough, you still have more members than ALL German speaking members.

  7. Kent said: Well, that is fine for German, with some 30,000 or so Church members. I’m quite certain that Spanish, at least, has enough members with roughly equal the income of the German saints to do much better than that.

    In which case the question becomes: why hasn’t it happened yet, then?

    But, you already asked that in another post, I believe.

  8. Gentlemen:

    This is a fascinating discussion, but I would remind you all to keep things focused on culture and esp. Mormon culture. This is not the place for a general discussion of the merits of copyright law. There are plenty of other blogs out there where such a discussion can be found.

    So to be clear:

    Copyright law as it pertains to specific Mormon cultural situations = totally cool.

    Discussion that solely focuses on whether or not current copyright laws are good or not = not so much.

    Or to use another current example:

    Discussion on how Mitt Romney’s presidency affect or doesn’t affect Mormon cultural consumption, production and perception = perfectly fine.

    Discussion on if Mitt is good Republican or decent politician or not = take it elsewhere.

    Not trying to dampen the discussion — just a reminder. Carry on. 🙂

  9. Ryan asks why, if the Spanish-speaking population of the Church is large enough, a market hasn’t already developed, like what has happened in Germany.

    Well, I would argue that it has started to develop. Note the following:

    * At least 2 exist that publish LDS books in Spanish and not in English. In addition, Deseret Book and Horizon (now part of Cedar Fort) have also published LDS books in Spanish. Some private publications have been launched, and I know of at least 2 Spanish-language publishers trying to start.

    * A number of bookstores also exist. I know of perhaps half a dozen, and I suspect that there may be as many as twice that.

    * Some 30 or more LDS titles are currently available in Spanish, and new titles have been introduced in recent years at the rate of about 5 each year.

    Of course, this isn’t really much, since most of the bookstores and publishers aren’t money making operations — they don’t really pay their way. In addition, the number of new titles introduced has been declining and recent changes in the LDS market make it possible that almost no new titles will be introduced.

    In the next few weeks I plan to post on the ‘state of non-English LDS books’ and give a more complete update.

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