Here we go again with copyright taking content away from the public, rather than the other way around. You’ve probably heard about everything going on in Greece these days, with the big vote and the fight over Greek debt and how it will deal with it. Leading up to it, my social media stream suddenly filled up with people linking to a story at Medium with an English translation by Gavin Schalliol of an interview famed economist Thomas Piketty gave to the German publication DIE ZEIT. Whether you like/agree with Piketty or not (and I’m in the camp that thinks he’s overrated), the interview itself was pretty interesting, making a key point that has gotten lost in much of the debate: that for all the pressure that Germany has been putting on Greece to repay its debts, Germany itself didn’t repay its debts after World War II (or earlier wars). Lots of people have been talking about it, and tons of English-language news reports wrote up the story, with nearly all of them linking to Schalliol’s translation. Just for example, here’s the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Quartz, Slate, Business Insider, Fortune, Marketwatch, and Vox, all of whom link to Schalliol’s translation on Medium.
I am currently in touch with DIE ZEIT to ensure my compliance with German copyright law. Updates will follow very soon. The original German interview with Thomas Piketty can be found here.
To be fair, it’s quite likely that Schalliol’s translation violated the copyright in the original. While some may debate whether or not a translation should ever really be subject to copyright (nothing is actually copied), it is pretty widely set in stone that translations are derivative works, and as such are subject to copyright. However, the simple fact is that DIE ZEIT did not choose to publish an English translation, and even if it now chooses to do so, it will happen after the big vote happened, rather than before, when Schalliol initially published his translation.
It’s that translation that spread the interview far and wide and made it a big part of the public discussion over how Greece should deal with the German-led EU proposal, which it eventually voted down. I’m sure the copyright system supporters among you will leap to the defense of DIE ZEIT and the fact that, by law, its “rights” were violated. But, if you take a step back and look at the overall situation, it’s difficult to see how the world is better off under such a result. If Schalliol had never been able to publish his translation, it’s likely that Piketty’s comments would have had a much smaller and more limited audience, limiting the role it played in the overall discussion. It wouldn’t likely have had much of an impact on the end result, but at the very least, it helped provide a lot of context to people around the globe.
And, it’s difficult to argue DIE ZEIT was somehow worse off. First, most of the articles actually linked back to the original as well, likely driving some amount of traffic. But, more importantly, it’s difficult to argue that Schalliol’s translation was a substitute for the original, given that even considering the small population that speaks both languages, it’s likely that Schalliol’s translation was almost entirely read by an audience that did not see the original and could not read it even if they wanted to.
If the intention of copyright is to better encourage the dissemination of ideas and knowledge, as we’re often told, then shouldn’t that kind of thing be encouraged, rather than discouraged? Instead, we get yet another story of copyright stepping in to stifle a public discussion of ideas.