Who legally owns an unauthorized translation?

← Return to forum

  • I have a question about who legally owns an unauthorized translation. I am discussing working on a translation project for an American publisher that compiles original songs in English, to translate the compilation into French. (The publisher also publishes some public domain songs, and a few songs for which it has obtained permissions to reprint.) I have gotten hold of around 180 songs that an unauthorized translator has already made into French. This unauthorized translator is presently not on good terms with the publisher, and is very unlikely to be willing to negotiate any agreement with the publisher concerning the songs that he has already translated. (Just to be clear, I'm talking about someone else; I am not the "unauthorized translator.")

    I am quite clear that the unauthorized translator has no right to distribute his translations of songs to which the owner holds copyright; this would be copyright infringement. (He would, of course, have rights to the public domain songs that he has translated.) However, my question is, who owns rights to the unauthorized translations of songs to which the publisher holds clear copyright? The possibilities I see are:

    1. The translator owns latent rights to his French translations, but is not permitted to distribute them until the publisher's copyrights on the English originals expire; his ownership rights take effect from that point (the compilation was published in 1980).
    2. The publisher automatically has rights to the unauthorized translations even though they were not commissioned by the translator; that is, the publisher can legally publish these translations and receive royalties from them, with or without the permission of the unauthorized translator. (As I indicated, I do have in my possession the unauthorized translations.)
    3. In the absence of any legal agreement, neither the unauthorized translator nor the publisher has any rights to the unauthorized translation: the unauthorized translator can legally prevent the publisher from publishing his translations, and the publisher can legally prevent the translator from distributing his translations.

    These possibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, for example, I could see that #3 could apply until copyrights expire, after which #1 would kick in.

    The countries of reference are:
    * The original compilation was published in USA, copyright 1980.
    * The eventual translated compilation will be published in France.
    * The unauthorized translators made the translations in Canada around 2000 to 2006.
    * I am located in Canada.

    I'd appreciate any clarification for this question.
  • I don't believe there is a real question of 'rights' here. The translation is not a legal property so doesn't really convey any rights. My layman's opinion would be that the illegal translations would belong to the publisher, but what they could do with the property would most likely be up to a court. You really need an informed legal opinion.

Posting to the forum is only available to users who are logged in.

← Return to forum