Intellectual Property

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

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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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There are currently 9 Comments for A crowd-sourced translation of The Lost Symbol: is this copyright infringement?.

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

people want to read the book .. translation can be done .. ipr and copyright are protection rackets, and in a hyperconnected world grounded in collective consciousness they are an anachronism .. that game is over

Given the quality of many crowdsourced movie subtitles fans will probably be better off waiting for the official translation.

The book seems to have been deleted from Innobook now - there's nothing at the URL you linked, and no search results either. It's still on Yee-Yan in both languages if you turn on Bilingual View though.

Thanks, Turtlewind. I've replaced the link with a screenshot of what the page looked like yesterday.

Talking about copyright protection for Dan Brown is like giving Dick Cheney a humanitarian award -- the book that made Brown, The DaVinci Code, was clearly ripped off from an obscure work of aracania called Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Its authors are the ones who held up release of the film because they sued Brown for plagiarism. The court ruled that you can't copyright ideas, but the fabric of his book was certainly based on theirs.

"Given the quality of many crowdsourced movie subtitles fans will probably be better off waiting for the official translation." @not a problem

Will the "official translation" really be better?

I wonder.

Most English-to-Chinese literary translations are the work of 2-3 people, e.g., the translator, a proofreader and a Chinese copy editor.

The "official" translator is generally paid miserably, around US$10 per 1,000 Chinese characters, and is working under tremendous time pressure.

The proofreader may well have a decent command of English, but it is very unlikely that s/he has spent time outside of China in an English-speaking country, so his or her knowledge of English is likely quite "bookish."

And has been shown in many discussions and interviews on the web, most "editors" in China are primarily concerned with re-packaging or eliminating politically incorrect content. They have relatively little time or inclination to improve the copy by skilled polishing.

Yeeyan's translators tend to be very passionate about what they do and are not subject to strict deadlines for the translation of an entire book. I find they are fairly young, very energetic and no doubt work in a "modular" manner, i.e., I do Chapter 1, you do Chapter 2, etc. I would assume that there is cross-checking and editing between them, which makes this a group, not a one-person product. Of course, ideally all such work would be edited by one chief editor, in order to ensure consistency of voice, etc.

I don't claim to know how Yeeyan and other similar online groups do their translation work, but their existence does raise some interesting questions:

*** Is the traditional "one translator + 1-2 editor" model the only way to proceed with literary translation?

*** For contemporary writing, should Western publishers consider recruiting younger English-to-Chinese translation teams from the web, rather than going through traditional Chinese publishers who badly underpay their translators, and turn out copy which has been massaged by mediocre, desk-bound middle-aged editors who may be out of touch with younger readers?

*** How can the Internet be harnessed to get better quality literary translation over the long run?

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews
www.bruce-humes.com



i wasn't aware there was such a thing as copyright law in China. what's the justification for being able to watch pretty much every movie or tv show ever made for free on sites like ku6 and baidu?

I mean seriously you don't even need to buy pirated dvds in china. everything's on the internet for free. why are people making a fuss about this?

so u think people in north america/europe don't download movies/tv series? then what are the bit torrent sites for?

Don't you know that Yeeyan has been blocked since Monday ,november 30 at around 2pm.?

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