copyright for translations of ancient literature?

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  • I'm working on a book that would be a compilation of koans (Zen stories). All of the koans would be from 100 to 2,500 years old, from China, Japan, and Korea, but the translations would be contemporary. Each koan is quite short - less than 150 words in most cases. Some sites I've looked at have suggested that direct translations are not necessarily copyrighted, so I'm confused. Do I need to get permissions for all translations? And what if I want to slightly change the language of the koan from the original translation? Can I do that? Do I need to get permission to do that? Thanks!
  • Clearly, the original koans would not be under copyright. Translation normally is a fairly creative process, so the results would normally have copyright protection, assuming that they, themselves, haven't fallen out of copyright. The exceptions to this might be of short, factual works, where no creativity is involved in the translation, or electronic translation, which lacks creativity by definition.

    So, it seems to me that fair use or permission would be the only ways you could include koans that have copyright protection. Taking whole works to publish them in your own book would seem to me to be a stretch for fair use, but we don't have enough information here to really make that determination. Linked from our wiki, there is a handy chart to help you with a fair use analysis.

    As far as changing the language, I think it kind of depends. If you're looking at several different versions and synthesizing them, I think that there might be some arguments for fair use. If you're taking a single translation of a koan and making your own modifications, it seems to me that this would be a derivative work. Creating derivative works is one of the package of rights that make up copyright, so this would be similar to copying the work. Again, there might be a fair use argument, but it seems a bit of a stretch, and otherwise, it seems likely that permission would be needed.
  • Very interesting! Thanks so much! How would I find that chart? These koans would be coming from many different sources. Some have been translated many times - it sounds like those we could modify and use under "fair use"? Some have been translated only once, and in that case we would need permission, both to use in the original form or to make changes? Unless the translation itself has fallen out of copyright....What if the translation is still copyrighted but the translator is dead and/or the press is defunct?
  • Ah, I just found your wiki and all the wonderful resources there. Very helpful. The Stanford site is particularly helpful, and what I noticed is that our work might fall under "transformational" use. I didn't mention that the second part of the book would be commentaries by contemporary women zen teachers on each koan. Also, in all cases we would be choosing one to five koans, most of them less than ten lines long, from collections of anywhere from a 100 to 300 koans, so we are using a small portion of any one translator's work.
  • Fcap, i think Freya Anderson has got a good suggestion. i can find the answer of your question here. if you still confused than let me know. may be i can help you with this.

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