English subs, worldwide audiences, anime, and open content

Alan Toner notes on his blog that when releasing Steal This Film 2, that having English Subtitles enabled the film to be translated into multiple languages almost immediately, thus increasing its worldwide distribution:

English subtitles were made available for the film on its release, a gambit which has paid off as almost immediately people began translating them into their own native languages. So far there are working subs available in Russian (tnx Beast + Lord Russian Nightmare), Finnish (tnx Janne Peltola), Italian (tnx to Chiara Micheli), German (thx Christian), Spanish (tnx Habladorcito) and Portuguese (tnx Felipe) on the website; Dutch, French, and Greek translations are on their way.

This is something that I identified and commented on in my article “Of Otaku and Fansubs: A Critical Look at Anime Online in Light of Current Issues in Copyright Law” [via SSRN] [via SCRIPTed]. Anime fansubs are fan translated and subtitled versions of Japanese-language content (usually TV episodes). Fans obtain raw content via Japanese p2p networks or through other means and then, often in a distributed production process much like open source, subtitle and encode the resulting content for distribution:

The English-language fansubs produced by fans aimed at the American market, of course, serve all parts of the English-reading world. In addition, English, either as a first or second language, is more widely known than Japanese, and so many fansub groups that translate into languages such as Turkish use the English fansub as a base for their translations.[171] Continuing to allow at least some English-language fansubs could be a way to expand the market for distributors intent on markets outside the U.S., whether English speaking or not.

Having an English version acts as a key that unlocks the door to greater distribution. However in the context of fansubs, this translation and distribution isn’t authorized. The legality of taking unauthorized content off of a p2p network and translating it and further distributing it is very doubtful.

Creative Commons licences that allow adaptations of the work allow for translation:

“Adaptation” means a work based upon the Work, or upon the Work and other pre-existing works, such as a translation, adaptation, derivative work, arrangement of music or other alterations of a literary or artistic work, or phonogram or performance and includes cinematographic adaptations or any other form in which the Work may be recast, transformed, or adapted including in any form recognizably derived from the original, except that a work that constitutes a Collection will not be considered an Adaptation for the purpose of this License.

The above is from the CC Attribution Unported licence [CC-BY], but is present in all six of the basic CC licences. CC has a “No Derivatives” option that prohibits adaptations as defined above, including translations. So licensing your work under Creative Commons only allow translations if you use:

  • Attribution (BY)
  • Attribution | Noncommercial (BY-NC)
  • Attribution | ShareAlike (BY-SA)
  • Attribution | Noncommercial | ShareAlike (BY-NC-SA)

So if you were going to distribute content and wanted to give permission to your users to translate your work into their own language — and use a CC licence to do it — you could use one of the above. There is another option however when considering one of the No Derivatives options that prohibit translation. You could have a supplementary licensing document that grants a specific right to translation, but not other adaptations. Just because you have placed the work under a No Derivative CC licence, doesn’t mean that you’ve given up the right to license derivatives. You could also, as I mentioned in an earlier post, not give permission up-front for translations but take a ‘light enforcement’ strategy when thinking about how to enforce your rights against unauthorized translations.