Saturday, February 4, 2017

Copyright Scammers

I started noticing scammer authors mainly because I signed up with Babelcube, a service connecting authors with translators. As an aside, I have nothing against Babelcube - I think their service is very interesting and if they manage to earn money, all the power to them.

When I had a look around for books I may want to translate, I was focusing on shorter books, because full-length novels seemed too risky and the royalty share appeared too low to make it worthwhile. Among the short books, it probably comes at no surprise that you would find "works" of scammer authors as described in my last post. It certainly makes sense for a spam distributor to find as many translators as possible, because this vastly increases their reach - for free. Remember that spam books only exist as vehicles for links to other spam books, websites, blogs, etc. The more books, the better, and if people are willing to contribute translations, awesome.

Having gained some initial experience with zero-income book translation, I decided to avoid jobs that smelled like pure work and to look for books that would just be fun side projects. Translation for translation's sake. This way, I stumbled over offers to translate Kafka stories. Wow, I thought, here's a publisher who is actually looking for people to (re)translate Kafka pieces. I quickly picked a fun title and gave it a shot applying. I expected some serious vetting - surely, a publisher would not want to distribute translations of some random person. To my surprise, my offer to translate "Investigations of a dog" was accepted immediately, without questions, and without any comments on my sample translation.

I started translating away, having a good time. Of course, even though the story is fairly short, the amount of labor that goes into such a project is quite significant. When I reached the proofreading stage, I started to have some doubts about the lack of communication with the publisher and began to do some research. You can tell that I had approached this as a hobbyist, rather blue-eyed and worry-free.

Who was this publisher, and what right did they have to publish a Kafka piece? It did not take long to figure out that all of Kafka's work is in the public domain, because Kafka died more than seventy years ago. That is why the Project Gutenberg is allowed to publish his works online, for everyone to freely read and download. Anyone is allowed to do whatever they like with public domain works, as all copyright claims have become nil and void.

What the "publisher" I was working for has done is this: he had downloaded the Kafka stories and published each of them as Kindle books. That takes minutes once you know what you are doing. The "publisher" then went to Babelcube and offered "his" Amazon book for translation. Here it becomes somewhat unethical: as soon as a translator submits a translation as the result of a project and the translation is accepted, the translator will contractually have a right to a royalty share, but the copyright for the translation is transferred to the project owner. This means that the "publisher" has gained the rights to a real book without doing any work. While perfectly legal, I still call this intellectual property theft. These "publishers" are preying on unsuspecting translators to hand them the rights to their work, which may involve a substantial investment of time. Fully legal, but altogether unethical, if you ask me.

Since the project owner did not have any more rights to the Kafka story than me or anybody else, I cancelled the project and simply published the book by myself. And now that the project was all mine, it became even more fun, because I could take full control of the process, design my own cover, and publish multiple editions for different purposes.

In any book-publishing project, images and photos are an important ingredient. Here, as with the source text, copyright is an issue - you cannot just swipe a photo from the internet and use it on a cover, for example. Since I did not expect any real earnings, I did not want to spend money on a cover photo. Luckily, it is relatively easy to find photos whose owners publish them for use without restrictions.

As I was looking for pictures, I noticed that photo databases have many very old photos for sale, scans of postcards, pictures from newspapers, and photos from private collections. I had seen that people were using photos of Franz Kafka all over the place, and Wikipedia shows those pictures as public domain items. It turns out that photographs have a more short-lived copyright than written texts. While the latter remain restricted until seventy years after the author's death, photos enter the public domain fifty years after their first publication. This means that many photo resellers are happily selling scans of very old postcards for $10, even though they do not have any rights to the picture. Again, simply banking on the fact that most people do not know about copyrights.

Of course, selling public domain works is just as legal as filling bottles with tap water and marketing it as "all natural spring water". Gluten and cholesterol free. However, I don't appreciate when I am asked to contribute real labor to such an enterprise without full disclosure. That is where mere sleaziness turns into a scam.

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