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I have found by absolute chance a doctorate thesis by a foreign author dating from the 70s, having as a subject the village where my parents are from. I was able to order it and have it in my possession.

No one knew about this work in the village, and only a few people told me that they did remember a young foreign individual hanging around in the village for a while at the time. I started translating it by myself and it is extremely interesting.

I emailed the university to try and contact the professor but got no answer. I would like to hire a professional translator and make the book available to the natives (not looking for profit, as I’m thinking 100-200 copies would be enough).

My question regards to copyrights. Ideally I would be able to contact the author and ask for his permission, but if I am not able to do it, how should I ago about it?

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  • You need permission from the owner of the copyright, which is almost certainly the publisher and not the author. Mar 4 at 1:45
  • 4
    @AnonymousPhysicist I just checked my university's dissertations and the copyright is retained by the author. Mar 4 at 1:57
  • 5
    @Andre Pires if you managed to "order it" as you say, why can you not ask whomever or whereever you ordered it from for help? Mar 4 at 8:13
  • 2
    Which country are you in? Lots of countries have some level of exemption from copyright for academic use, but exactly how that would work is country specific; teflpedia.com/Copyright_in_English_language_teaching (note the link also discusses translated works)
    – Clumsy cat
    Mar 4 at 10:53
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    @Sursula-they- Presumably the library of the university has copies of all dissertations written there and will give out copies for a fee. That doesn't imply they have any means to contact the author.
    – quarague
    Mar 4 at 16:33

4 Answers 4

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One possibility is for you to use Google Scholar to track down other publications made by the same author, and see if they have worked in other academic institutions after completing the dissertation. If so, you might try to contact the department and see if some faculty has the author's contact. Copyright issues are dependent on the country where you live. In many countries, copyright has been extended to 70 years after the death of the author. In any case, out of caution, it is probably best for you to not get the book made without solving the copyright issues first. It's too much of a risk (an unnecessary one, as a matter of fact). Some authors might not care at all that you translated their work, others would never allow you to do it, even if you paid them.

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    If the author's not keen on you publishing several hundred copies, ask about making 1-2 translated copies to donate to the local library. You'll still be making the material available, but it might be easier to accept if there's not a large production run involved.
    – bta
    Mar 4 at 23:20
  • @bta, "making available" is a form of publishing. It is this right held by the copyright owner. Donation is also irrelevant.
    – Buffy
    Mar 7 at 19:35
  • Thank you for your suggestion. I searched Google scholar yet the author does not have a profile there. I won’t consider publishing without permission before I have run out of options to find him. Mar 7 at 22:00
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Answer for the UK: If you cannot trace the author you can obtain a licence from the IPO if you need to. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/copyright-orphan-works

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  • Thank you for the suggestion. I am however not in the UK, nor the author is originally from there. Would it still be a possibility to publish it there? Mar 7 at 22:05
  • @AndréPires, You can make use of the scheme if the use of the work is for within the UK. I.e. the work and the right holder can have any origin but if publication will be in the UK then the scheme can apply.
    – Tpr
    Mar 14 at 10:16
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The law regarding translations, fair use, and copyright duration varies by country, so it is difficult to offer a clear answer to this question. I am answering this question assuming that US law is relevant and that the work in question is under copyright. (If the work is not under copyright then obviously you do not need to concern yourself further.)

US copyright law has a doctrine called fair use which allows use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder. I believe that distributing a limited number of full translations of the dissertation at cost or at a loss (that is, not generating a profit) for academic research is not likely to be legally infringing. Let's look at the 4 factors involved in fair use:

  1. Purpose and character of the use: The use is non-commercial academic research, which is a point in favor of fair use.
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work: Seems irrelevant here.
  3. Amount and substantiality: You are suggesting translating the full dissertation. This does not necessarily disqualify the use as fair but you would have an easier time justifying distributing a translation of part of the work. Incidentally, this would also reduce the cost of translation so you may want to go this route.
  4. Effect upon work's value: I believe this limited translation would increase the original work's value because it would increase its market size, so I think this is a point in favor of the translation. Note that this may change if you were to post the translation online for anyone to download.

The most legally justifiable way to publish a full translation would be to make one printed copy and get it put in a library. This used to be relatively common (I've received translations via interlibrary loan that were published this way) and I'm not aware of any legal challenges to this approach. This approach minimizes the effect on the market for the original.

Note that I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. You should ask a competent IP attorney in your local jurisdiction if you want a better answer. If you are at a university, your university may have one or more staff attorneys who could answer this question for you at no cost to you.


Note that it still is polite to get permission from the copyright holder and/or author(s). I have published quite a few translations and while it is rare that I am able to contact the authors (usually the papers I translate are quite old and the authors have been dead for a long time), I am yet to encounter any author not enthusiastic about translating their work. I don't recall ever getting a response from publishing companies about translating work they own the copyright to.

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  • You have #4 exactly backwards unless you give the translation to the authors to publish, in which case you can get permission. "Selling at cost or at a loss" is also irrelevant. It is the act of publishing that is the problem.
    – Buffy
    Mar 7 at 19:33
  • @Buffy I would recommend taking a look at the links I gave on fair use for summaries of case law on this subject, as there are examples covering what I mentioned. I also clarified #4. Mar 7 at 19:40
  • Thank you for your response. It all seems very sensible, and I will try to see if such norms apply to this country. Mar 7 at 22:08
  • Hi @Buffy. You mention that the problem is publishing it, which is also my intuition. Does 'publishing' make reference to some official way of releasing the translation? Would, let's say, posting it online for free count as publishing? Or printing a few copies at home and giving them away?
    – anonymous
    Jul 17 at 17:48
  • Any sort of making it available generally to the public is "publishing". So putting it online has all the concerns mentioned. A few copies for friends/colleagues is normally ok because it is below the threshold where any copyright owner would make an issue of it. Sending electronic versions to "a few friends" is fraught, since you can't control where it goes from there.
    – Buffy
    Jul 17 at 17:56
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Take the risk. You're very unlikely to be sued; if you are, you will almost certainly be able to come to an agreement. It's not as if they're losing revenue as a result of your action. If you can show that you made best efforts to contact them, then you have a good defence.

My only reservation would be if there are privacy concerns or other sensitivities that might mean the original author doesn't actually want the work to reach a wider audience.

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    This is disrespectful to the author. The right of translation is (most places) with the copyright holder and requires permission.
    – Buffy
    Mar 4 at 15:29
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    And, what reputable publisher would touch an unauthorized translation that might break copyright? Though laws vary, it is still an ethical violation.
    – Buffy
    Mar 4 at 15:32
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    I didn't think the OP was proposing to publish it, just to distribute copies privately to interested parties, who surely have a right to know what was being written about them. Mar 5 at 21:05
  • It is polite and ethical to try to establish the copyright holder(s) and ask their permission first. OP is trying to do the right thing here and asks how to best do it, not whether to do this. Mar 7 at 15:38
  • I agree, and am almost certain the vast majority of authors would most likely feel flattered that a work written more than 40 years ago would be rescued from oblivion and translated to another language (in this case so that the objects of the study could enjoy it), yet the interesting thing about people is how unpredictable they can be… Mar 7 at 22:12

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