Copyright of translations

'Is it legal', 'can I do this' type questions and discussions.
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Copyright of translations

Post by janinekiely »

I have written nursery rhymes in a foreign language based on traditional English language nursery rhymes. All the English language nursery rhymes are free from copywrite and in the public domain. I will then publish them in a book and record them on a CD will accompanying music.

In most cases the foreign version isn't a direct translation of the English nursery rhyme as some of verses and names change, but it will be instantly recognisable to the English speaker.

I understand the foreign version that I have created will be my copywrite. I want to offer a translation of our foreign version into English. I am concerned that when I translate my foreign version back into English my English translation may be similar to a derivative of the traditional nursery rhyme, which in turn someone else might have previously copywrited.

Please let me know if you need clarification on any of the above, thanks.
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Post by AndyJ »

Hi Janine,
I'm a bit confused by that fact that you say the English nursery rhymes on which you have based your foreign language versions are in the public domain, but you are concerned that if you translate your version back into English it may somehow infringe someone else's copyright in the original.
Most traditional nursery rhymes are in the public domain due to their age and the fact that the writers are unknown, so there is nobody to claim that a work has been infringed. Of course not all children's songs which might loosely be called nursery rhymes are in the public domain. For example the song The Wheels on the Bus appears to have no known author but if as Wikipedia says it first appeared in the mid twentieth century, the work is almost certainly subject to copyright unless the author died a decade or so before the song was published. Since we do not know who the author is/was it cannot be assumed that the work is in the public domain, and the rule is to count on 70 years from the date the work was made, or if this is not known, the date of first publication.
So returning to your question, the best way to ensure that your translations into English will not infringe copyright is to do a bit of research into each rhyme to establish that it is too old to be copyright, and then you should be fine to publish your version. If however, one of your translations is based on a song (like the Wheels on the Bus example) which seems to be in copyright, then you might need to be extra diligent in trying to track down the author. Only if this diligent search fails to turn up an author, can you be reasonably confident that you will not run into problems.
Don't get confused by copyright in a book which collects together a set of traditional songs and any copyright in the actual songs. Most books will have a copyright notice in them but a little research should soon reveal whether the songs themselves are also copyright. This is somewhat akin to an artist painting a picture of a famous scene, say St Paul's Cathedral in London. The artist may claim copyright in his original work, but this does not prevent another artist coming along and also doing a painting of St Paul's, which will also gain copyright as a separate original work.
Advice or comment provided here is not and does not purport to be legal advice as defined by s.12 of Legal Services Act 2007
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