Online Translation - Dealing with Copyright and Plagiarism Issues Part I - Idiot's Guide to Online Copyright Issues

topCopyright infringement and plagiarism existed long before the internet became a household name. However, with the internet quickly finding its way into people's homes, and a little help from the ever-developing technology, more and more people are able to easily make their own website/blog.

The problem is that with so many people producing content, unauthorized use of someone else's content is now just a copy/paste away. This article won't look at the general issues involved with online plagiarism and copyright infringement (which have already been discussed many times elsewhere), but it will focus on a specific case of copyright infringement.

This article is the result of a collaboration between ComiPress, a Japanese law blog called Ahowota Law Student News, and many others who provided useful insights and comments. Due its length, the article has been divided into three parts. In Part I, we introduce the basic concept of copyright infringement and plagiarism, and how they apply to translating contents on the internet. In Part II, we provide a translation of Ahowota Law Student News's opinion on the subject. In Part III, we take the concepts explored in Part I and present them to other site/blog's authors, journalists, and people from the industry to get an outside view on the issue.

Online Translations and the Resulting Copyright Problems

Consider the following scenario:

1. Person A writes an article in Japanese.
2. Person B sees the article, translates it into English, and posts the translated article on his own website

Is Person B infringing Person A's copyright?

This is actually quite common in the online manga scene. Without getting into the scanlation issue (which probably requires an article in itself), many websites (ComiPress included) translate news articles and interviews from another language into English and proceed to publish them. So is what they're doing right? Or are they simply infringing on the original author's copyright?

Let's go back to our Person A/B scenario and look at several different cases:

img11. Person B posts the translated article on his own website without giving any credit to Person A, or providing a link back to Person A's website.

In this case many would say that Person B is, without any doubt, infringing Person A's copyrights. Without providing any credit to the translated article's original author, readers would naturally assume Person B is the author. According to

Copyright is a form of protection provided [...] to the authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.

But what if Person B argues that the translated article is his own work? That, after being translated into another language, the article is no longer the original, but a derivative work of the original? According to the Fair Use policy, it's alright to copy and distribute another's work depending on:

  1. The purpose and character of your use
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. What amount and proportion of the whole work was taken, and
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

So as long as the derivative work is used to advance public interest as with criticism, education, etc. and does not include the exact same copy of the original work, it is okay! So is Person B doing the right thing? But wait, Person B simply posted the translated article on his website, hmmm, let's take a closer look at what copyright protects.

img3Copyright gives authors and artists the right to exclude others from using their works. So let's say Person A created the Gundam series: the copyright of Gundam belongs to Person A, and others are prohibited from using Gundam without Person A's approval. However, this does not mean other people can't create any giant mech-related series in general. Person B can still create his own giant robot series, as long as his robots are sufficiently different from Person A's Gundam.

In our situation, Person B simply used the translated version of Person A's article for himself (If he simply translated a section of it for use in a bigger article, then that's totally different). Using our example above, it's the same as Person B creating his own Gundam series where the Gundam are made out of wood. Although Person B's wood Gundam are different from Person A's metal Gundam, Person B is still infringing on Person A's copyrights.

Fair use makes this issue very vague. However, by not providing any credit to the article's original author, Person B is essentially tricking his readers, either intentionally or non-intentionally, into thinking he wrote the article. This is where plagiarism comes in. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

[...] to take and use as one's own the thoughts, writings, or inventions of another.

Basically, plagiarism is the act of claiming original authorship or incorporating material from someone else's work, in whole or in part, into your own work without crediting the original author. Doing such an act unconsciously is also considered plagiarism.

It should be noted that copyright infringement and plagiarism are two different things (although they are closely related in many incidents):

Copyright infringement is a violation of the rights of the copyright holder, which involves the loss of income and artistic control of the material when it is used without the copyright holder's consent. On the other hand, plagiarism is concerned with the unearned increment to the plagiarizing author's reputation.

So in this case, Person B is still plagiarizing Person A's work, whether he infringed any copyrights or not. So how should one avoid making Person B's mistake? Credit the original author of course! This leads to our second scenario...

*For those who don't know, Gundam is a popular anime series from Japan that involves giant mechanical robots (mecha). For a fun article on Gundam and copyright infringement/plagiarism issues, read "Gundam and Giant Robots in South Korea."

2. Person B posts the translated article on his own website, and credits Person A as the original author. Better yet, Person B even posts a link Person A's article.

By doing so, Person B is not in any way committing an act of plagiarism. However, the issue of copyright infringement still comes in.

Most major websites have a clause in their copyright statement that reads something as follows:

All works found on this website belong to [ insert name ], re-distribution of the work, images, and translations are prohibited.

If Person A has such a statement on his website, then Person B is infringing on Person A's copyright. But what if Person A only has a small blog, and didn't bother to put any such statement on his blog? This is of special interest to us, since a majority of the blogosphere is composed of people who do not care, or do not pay attention to such things.

Also, if Person B claims that he is translating the article not for profit but out of passion, does this mean he has fair use of Person A's work? This is perhaps one of the vaguest areas related to this issue.

The "right holder" of the work with "no copyright statement" is usually less interested in the copyright than the one of the work with copyright statement. But within countries signed on to the Berne Convention (of which both the U.S. and Japan are a part of), even works with "no copyright symbol" or "no copyright statement" are copyrightable. So, in the case mentioned above, the chances are high that the deed of Person B will be judged as copyright infringement.

I once talked to a writer/editor named Masako, who works for the web department of a major English newspaper in Japan, about translating articles from other websites. Here's what she had to say about this issue:

"I do not feel so good about translating certain articles.

There are a lot of people who 'quote' stuff from my company's website, often just copying whole articles without bylines or anything, and translate them without asking permission from the newspaper or its writer. One of my jobs at work is to find those 'culprits' and ask my boss to track them down and ask them to stop abusing our content. Or pay fees.

In reality, our company doesn't track down individual blogs. We only go after commercial websites, or if the site is really abusing our stuff repeatedly, or anything worse is happening.

What if your site goes commercial? Or if your blog becomes really famous? [...] Most probably nobody would go after you and try to make you take down the articles, but they might ask you for license fees. Or put their name on your site or something.

And for the manga industry itself, being pirated overseas for such a long time and everything, I sincerely hope that the person would find a way to pay for the translations. Out of passion is very noble and fine, but abusing copyright and translation rights would, in the end, make the whole industry, which wasn't much of a money making one originally, go stale. It would be better to make it pay."

But Person B also has a strong argument. Consider the following conversation I had with someone who is very involved within both the online and offline anime/manga scene:

"I would follow these guidelines: it's your site's translation, you are providing a link to the original article in its original language. I wouldn't bother contacting the author unless you develop a relationship with him or her, then you could get paid to translate their stuff.

As long as you make sure the source is clear, I don't see how this could be considered theft of content. If you clearly post the original article link, and make it clear this is your translation, because you're doing the work of translating, so in itself, it's a different news post vs. the original post. It's like putting on a different set of clothing; you're still the same, but just different clothing, each original yet the same."

Person B could also argue that there are other websites who would translate Person A's article without citing their source (as discussed in our first situation), and by posting a translation of Person A's article AND citing the source, at least Person A is getting credits for the article.

So what's going on here? Person B's argument is that "making the source clear" justifies the use of other people's copyrighted work. This argument sounds a little confusing.

Let's say if Person B posts the translated article on his own website without giving any credit to Person A, the copyright holder, then what Person B is doing is plagiarism, as discussed in our first situation.

If Person B posts the translated article on his own website giving credit to Person A, Person B isn't plagiarizing Person A. However "the deed isn't plagiarism" doesn't mean that "the deed isn't violating Person A's copyright."

Think of a Manga website that uploads newly released Manga chapters from a popular manga magazine. The website makes it clear that the copyright holder of these comics belong to their authors. Of course the site isn't plagiarizing, but it's violating the copyright of the manga artists.

Creative Commons

Do note that you should also pay attention to the license. Sometimes a work may be licensed under Creative Commons. Depending on the type of license used, you may be allowed to create derivative works without permission (although most of the time you're still required to credit the original work). In the case of Creative Commons Licensing, think of it as the original author already gave you permission to use his or her work.s

Let's now look at situation 3.

3. Person B posts the translated article on his own website after obtaining permission from Person A.

img2Now this is perfectly legal, and both parties benefit from the cooperation. Person B makes the article and its ideas available to people who speak another language, while Person A gets credit for the work.

Of course, sometimes things may still go wrong. Person B could mis-translate a certain idea, or put Person A's article in a negative context.

In both cases, if Person A contacts Person B and asks him to correct/remove undesired content, Person B should agree to Person A's wish. However, in such cases copyright infringement is no longer the issue, since copyright does not prohibit one from modifying or defacing a legitimately obtained copy of a copyrighted work.

Of course, by not listening to the original author's request, don't expect him or her to give you permission for doing anything further with their works.

What To Do?

So what should we do if we don't want to get in trouble for translating a certain article?

From the three situations described above, Situation 1 results in direct copyright infringement and plagiarism, and is something not recommended.

Situation 2 is in the grey area. In its simplest form it is still is an act of copyright infringement. However, most blogs and websites tend to not pay as much attention to such things, especially by small blogs or websites.

In the end, asking for permission from the original author is always the best option. If you don't receive a reply, then forget about posting the exact translation on your own website. Of course, translating only a portion (the smaller the better) for use in an original article written by you is still okay.

Part II - A Legal View
Part III - Question and Answers


Readers may translate and publish this article into another language without asking for specific permission from the copyright holder (that's us!). However, it would make us happier if you inform us of your translation and credit us as the source :)

読者の皆様は著作権者(つまり私達)へ特別の許可を取らずにこの記事を自由に翻訳、または転載しても構いません。ただし、当サイトへの転載の連絡と、出典として当サイトをクレジット表示して頂けると嬉しいです。 (`・ω・´)

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Many copyright and plagiarism issues on the Internet are simply issues of professional courtesy. Before using material from a website, ask yourself if you would want your own work used without acknowledgement.

copy right


I'd like to translate some parts of this article to Burmese and post it on my website and will also give credit to this site.



Sure! As long as you link

Sure! As long as you link back to us as the source hehe :)

Can a translation be plagiarized??

OK, say we have:
2. Person B posts the translated article on his own website, and credits Person A as the original author. Better yet, Person B even posts a link Person A's article.

Person A then releases its own translated copy, which is not substantially different than B's version since they are both designed to be true to the original.

AFAIK Person B owns the copyright on his "Derivative Work", which cannot be distributed without the permission of the original copyright owner but nonetheless he does own the copyright of the English version. So:
Does A's subsequent translation infringe upon B's "Derivative Work" copyright on the English version?

This is interesting because any "faithful" subtitles should be quite similar among different translators. As such, it may be difficult to see/prove if the second translation was a new work or simply copied straight from the first translation.

This could make the existence of a faithful subtitling dangerous to the copyright holder, who might be forced to make an unfaithful translation simply because the first translation, which they do not own "derivative rights" to, is squatting on the faithful translation.


I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you are wrong about the translation not being an infringement. A translation of a work to another language is called a derivative work. Simple translation - for any reason, news reporting, or "passion" - is still something that required authorization from the original copyright holder. It does not matter if you link to their website. "Fair Use" is something entirely different - that is where you take quotes from another work to use or report on, once they are in the public stream; translations do not fall under this. This is all true of US copyright law, I am unfamiliar with Japan's laws.

I am a third year law student, specializing in Intellectual Property, and working on a massive research article to be published; my research brought me to your site, and I thought I would offer what I have learned about these laws, so that you (or anyone else interested) might be aware of what they actually are - not because I'm a copyright nazi, but so that in the case of questions, people can know the answer and take precaution (or prepare adequate defense, should anyone ever come after them).

Here are a couple of links I think might help support what I have said here.

Here is a wikipedia entry describing what a "derivative work" is:

And here is a link to a circular from the United States Copyright Office, explaining more in-depth about how translating works with respect to copyrights:

I hope this is of some service to you or any of your readers. If you have any questions I might be able to answer, feel free to email me, I have plenty of case law here and research that might be of use. And, of course, you are free to cite or copy anything I've said here, I waive any copyright to these words. :)