Writing, speaking, and translating the future

The fallacy of international copyright and translation for ereaders

The fallacy of international copyright and translation for ereaders 1

An upcoming development in ereaders will be the battle for revenue from non-English content.  Though Amazon has made large strides in English ebooks their international rollout of the Kindle has left them somewhat vulnerable on this front.

A fully capable ereader that allows UTF8 and thus can display every language I’m sure is either on the market or about to be released.  The real prize will go to the content and device company that captures the world adoption market.  And if these content providers are smart they are also investigating rights to foreign languages for sale in the U.S. and other markets. The diaspora of highly educated from one country to another makes it another lucrative market for sales. These translations will open up great revenue streams that will probably be worth 10 or 20 fold what is available in English content.  Those companies that plan their strategy well for this translated content could dominate the ebook content and device market.

But a device in and of itself is not the only thing a content company would need to succeed in non-English ebooks.  The bigger and more costly problem is navigating the quagmire that is international copyright. And I think that ereaders will force all countries and publishers to deal with this very large problem.

In book publishing copyright has always been a geographically based concept. Publishers own the rights in a given geography for a given period of time. So it has been customary to sell off the book rights for other languages as a way to recoup costs.  The cost for exclusive country rights to an author would depend on the sales record of the author, the perceived sales potential in a given country, and perhaps previous agreements on that author between the two publishers. All the costs of translation, editing, publishing, binding, sales and marketing of the book would fall to the publisher who purchased the rights for exclusive distribution in their country.

This model severely limited the content that would appear in translation, especially in the United States. But ereaders will destroy this tried and true system, and could provide interesting new business models. To examine this in detail I will examine copyright, digital rights, and translations.

First the effects on copyright.

There is not a true international copyright available. It is more a patchwork of agreements, treaties, and conventions that protects an author’s work in many countries around the world. The Berne Convention is the most important. A full discussion of this can be downloaded from the Copyright office at the following url: http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ38a.pdf

So our first interesting problem is the effect that a dissolution of international borders causes.  If two publishers who own a copyright, say one in Mexico, and one in Spain, use Amazon’s store to upload the Spanish version of Dan Brown’s latest book are they both legal?  This might not be a problem if the content provider has a digital storefront in each country but what if they don’t? And can they be sold to Spanish speakers in the U.S.? If so does the current English publisher have to relicense one of the translations for the U.S. market? And how does Amazon, Kobo and other content providers address this issue with the English copyright holder?

These are all problems that the content providers will have to address and plan for even if they do not actively participate in the solution.

Digital Rights

Digital rights have only been added to U.S. publishing contracts in  last 15-20 years. I can’t speak to this issue in other countries but it will be important. What happens with books where publishers bought the print rights, but did not buy the international rights? Are those rights something that Content providers like Kobo, Amazon, and Apple could seek from the author? What about country rights that were sold prior to a period where digital rights became standard?  Are the copyrights fair game for content providers to buy and release in the U.S.?


The amount of ebooks caused by this dissolution of geographic restrictions, and services like Amazon’s Digital Text Platform will necessitate a need for translations like never before. But literary translation is a specialized field, and the need will far outstrip the supply of qualified translations. So how do we solve the problem? Again I could see a social network of translators working on books they like and content providers providing the means for a more professional translation marketplace for those publishers that desire it. There would have to be quality control mechanisms to ensure that the growth of content does not mean a reduction in quality which will cause a reduction in revenue.

International copyright,which in itself a fallacy, will further fragment with the sale of ereaders and the growth of the ebook market.  The largest share of this substantial market will go to the company that can address the copyright,translation, and digital rights problems that will be the result of readers that support UTF8. These readers will make double-byte, and bi-directional languages possible on the devices, and thus drive sales of ebooks in these markets.

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