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What is a Translation Copyright?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 16, 2024
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A translation copyright is a legal instrument, codified in many nations' laws, that extends copyright protection to the translation of any published work. Copyright laws protect authors’ rights in all written or recorded works, from songs and their lyrics to poems, books, and manuscripts. So long as the work exists in some tangible form, copyright protections automatically attach. When a copyrighted work is translated into another language, a new work emerges that carries with it its own set of copyright privileges, known as translation copyright. Copyright protection for translations is automatic, just as it is for original works.

Under United States copyright law, translations are considered “derivative works” of the original material on which they are based. A derivative work is something that relies heavily on an original material but adds insight or substance in such a way that the result takes on a new and independent character. Such is the case with translations, because a translator does more than look up individual words in a dictionary. She absorbs the original material, conceptualizes the main thoughts and feelings, and recreates it all in her own language. The translation stands apart from the original work and is eligible for copyright protection independent of the original work.

Independence does not mean complete separation. Under United States law, English Common Law and European Union directives, the author of an original work retains the right to exploit and sell his or her work however he or she chooses. This right extends to translations of the original ideas. Keeping in mind that a translation is a creative interpretation of an original work, it follows that the rights of that original work supersede the translation, meaning that the original copyright and the translation copyright — while coexisting independently — are, in fact, related. A translation copyright will not enable a translator to translate and sell another author’s ideas without that author’s permission, but it will protect a permissible translation against unauthorized copying.

In practice, it is rare to find original copyrights and translation copyrights held by separate parties. The original copyrights for most literary works are owned not by the works’ authors but by those authors’ publishers. Copyright transfer is a standard part of the vast majority of publishing contracts. Authors agree to relinquish their copyrights in exchange for a royalty, or a percentage of the sales the publisher can procure.

Many large publishing houses have internal translation departments, and most have at least established relationships with translation teams. When a translator is retained by a publishing house to translate a specific work, that work is generally subject to the same contract terms as the original — the translator agrees to surrender a work's translation copyright in exchange for royalty payments. In some cases, an author retains his or her own copyright and, should he or she permit translation of the work, the translator could hold an independent translation copyright. It is important to keep in mind that, regardless of the ownership structure, no derivative copyrights are free-standing. Translators and those looking to reproduce translated works should carefully consider the rights involved in any project and should ensure that no action is taken without the express permission of the copyright holder, be it an author, a translator, or a publisher.

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Discussion Comments

By qiu007 — On Dec 28, 2012

How does a translator get paid? Does the original author or publisher have the right to share the sales of the translation work with the translator?

By anon299500 — On Oct 25, 2012

The publisher of the book can give you permission.

By anon274278 — On Jun 11, 2012

I want to translate a famous science non-fiction work by Stephen Hawking. As Mr. Hawking is physically not well, I have been unable to get his permission for last several years. I have sent many letters and e-mails to him but have had no direct response from him.

In this context, how can I proceed in my translating work? Will it be a violation of his copyright if I translate the book and publish it for common people?

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