A crowd-sourced translation of The Lost Symbol: is this copyright infringement?


Psst! It’s a ©

Dan Brown’s latest novel, The Lost Symbol, was released on September 15.

His last book, The Da Vinci Code, was wildly popular in China and propelled translations of his earlier novels onto bestseller lists as well. The latest thriller, which follows the further adventures of intrepid symbologist Robert Langdon, should sell well over here too.

Once it’s translated, that is. People’s Literature Publishing House expects a Chinese edition to be on shelves sometime in 2010.

Chinese Internet users can’t wait that long, so Yeeyan, a collaborative translation website, has launched a project to crowd-source the translation of The Lost Symbol into Chinese. They’ve already posted the prologue and the first two chapters.

“Will translating The Lost Symbol without authorization break the law?” asks translator Lao Gan in a post on Yeeyan’s forums:

This hasn’t happened yet, but we can borrow from a previous example. Looking at the Harry Potter novels may provide inspiration.

Internet users translated the later Harry Potter novels far in advance of the publication of the authorized translations, and crowd-sourced translation is frequently harnessed for putting subtitles on films and TV shows that have not been officially released on the Chinese mainland.

But Yeeyan’s well-organized project is vastly different from non-commercial translations done by groups of fans, writes Janson Yao in a stern blog post. Yao, himself a professional translator, sees Yeeyan as benefiting from its brazen infringement on Dan Brown’s intellectual property:

Does Yeeyan’s Group Translation of a Dan Brown Book
Count as Copyright Infringement?

by Janson Yao

On Yeeyan, I noticed a post by Lao Gan that really demonstrated the cheek of the site’s management.

1. Yeeyan’s most serious action is to provide the original text of Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol, in PDF format for unrestricted downloading. Even though they’ve craftily put the book on a different website, Innobook ([screenshot]), the language on that web page meshes so well that they’re obviously related. However, from a legal standpoint, it is difficult to prove that Yeeyan and Innobook are the same company.

This action seriously infringes on Dan Brown’s copyright, and the damage to China’s efforts to protect intellectual property rights will be hard to rectify.

2. Yeeyan has organized netizens to translate The Lost Symbol. It has provided the original text and publication space, has engaged in publicity, and has even included this line in its announcement: “Please promote the Yeeyan Chinese feature on The Lost Symbol by all possible means.”

Yeeyan is not only the organizer of this unsanctioned translation operation: it can also count as the chief beneficiary. Why do I say Yeeyan benefits? There is advertising on the Yeeyan website, and climbing hit-rates means that Yeeyan’s advertising income grows. A website needs popularity, and Yeeyan can rely on The Lost Symbol to attract netizens to patronize the site and further drive up its ad revenue.

3. The biggest difference between Yeeyan’s unsanctioned translation and previous unauthorized, popular Chinese translations of Harry Potter lies in the fact that Yeeyan’s effort is profit-driven, and has been planned and promoted to create as big an effect as possible.

The unauthorized translation will give book pirates a convenient way to print The Lost Symbol, allowing them to seize the market and cause losses for the legitimate holder of the copyright to the Chinese edition.

Yeeyan clearly knows this, yet it still seeks to profit from Dan Brown’s new book. It notes on the web page, “The Chinese-language copyright to The Lost Symbol belongs to the People’s Literature Publishing House, which plans to bring out a Chinese edition in 2010. Yeeyan’s Chinese translation of The Lost Symbol is intended for non-profit study and exchange. Please support and purchase genuine editions!” And Innobook has a “disclaimer”: “The original text e-books provided for download on Innobook are restricted to scholarly use only and may not be put to any commercial use, and must be deleted after reading. Magazine copyrights belong to the author and publisher. Please purchase genuine editions.” But this is simply a ridiculous veneer.

Or can a petty thief tell you “Your household possessions belong to you,” and then legally clean you out and sell your stuff on the side of the road?

4. In English-speaking countries, there are actually many novels that have entered the public domain yet have not been translated into Chinese. Great works may have have slipped through the cracks, so why, instead of translating works for which there are no copyright issues, has Yeeyan organized netizens to translate Dan Brown’s new book? It’s obvious: they want to take advantage of Dan Brown’s popularity.

Innobook is an archive of downloadable PDFs of English-language material. Tech-related books are featured on the front page, as are popular magazines like The Economist, Reader’s Digest, and the Harvard Business Review. All of these copyrighted works are placed under a Creative Commons non-commercial license.

The site’s motto is adapted from The Analects (Zihan 29): “The righteous are free from worry, the wise from perplexity, and the bold from fear.”

The copyright page claims: “All PDF documents published on Innobook, including translations in Yeeyan-issued PDFs, have undergone a rigorous copyright review,” so maybe Dan Brown really is cool with having the full text of his latest book up on the Internet for anyone to download for free.

Update (2009.12.01): The China Daily reports that Yeeyan has pulled the offending material.

Update (2009.12.04): Yeeyan has now been shut down for violating GAPP regulations. This appears largely unrelated to the copyright issue.

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