Copyright Takes Down High-Profile Translation Of Thomas Piketty's Comments On Germany & Greek Debt

from the because-copyright dept

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.

But, if you visit it now, you will not see the translation. Instead, you see this:

If you can’t read it, it says:

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.

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Comments on “Copyright Takes Down High-Profile Translation Of Thomas Piketty's Comments On Germany & Greek Debt”

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Anonymous Coward says:

given that even considering the small population that speaks both languages

Among the subset of all people on earth that have access to the mostly free and uncensored Internet, Germans are actually one of the bigger groups. I like to take amount of wikipedia articles as a proxy for the amount of people reasonably familiar with the internet in a certain languane (English being a special case) and Germany has the 2nd most articles even with their somewhat stricter notability rules.

Fagin Steele says:


Hello? I was getting to be a regular reader of this website. But saying translations of somebody’s newspaper articles in extenso should be copyright-free because… well, they oughta… an’ I wannit wannit… and anyway hey the translation was widely published… no. No, no, no.

If you think Piketty deserves to be read in your language, do a rewrite or an interview of your own. Don’t rip off somebody else’s work because you lack the imagination, talent or initiative to create something original. And if you think printed interviews are done by writing down soundbites verbatim in 15 minutes, you have NO clue about what journalism is.

This is exactly the kind of theft that makes newspapers die, reporters look for P.R. work and the informed public fade away along with traditional journalism.

Village Idiot (profile) says:

Re: No

Translating articles into another language makes newspapers die? The only way for the public to be informed is via “traditional journalism?”

It sounds like “you have NO clue about what journalism is.”

Traditional journalism has been dying a slow death at the hands of traditional journalists. When infotainment and parroting become an organizations primary content at the expense of actual journalism, reporting sourced information with as little bias as possible, who then is to blame for killing “traditional journalism?”

Must be those damn pirates.

jameshogg says:

Re: No

What gives you the right to say that English-speaking folk have no right to conduct journalism by researching the words of foriegn speakers?

Copyright grants the right to deny works even be read in a certain langugae AT ALL. That is a clear-cut profanity of freedom of expression: everyone forgets that freedom of expression is not just the right of someone to be heard but also the right of everyone to listen and to read.

DIE ZEIT could deny its English translation ENTIRELY if it wished too. Are you happy with that level of power copyright gives to somebody? Especially when the stakes over Greece are very high right now?

If the interview were funded through an assurance contract (e.g. crowdfunding) to cover the expenses and profit, something that doesn’t need copyright to function, with the interview in the public domain there would be no problem and the journalists would carry on with their crucial profession as well as journalists of other tongues. Everybody wins.

It is you who is putting roadblocks to the journalistic profession.

jameshogg says:

Re: Re: No

If I were a deluded Euro-worshipping German-speaker who was conducting an interview such as this, I’d certainly use every opportunity to prevent the English with their more stable, state-currency from laughing as much as possible.

Even if it means promoting a deliberate mistranslation with pro-Euro subtitles that were not accurate, where all other dissenting translations were stamped on using copyright law, or better yet preventing English translations entirely.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No

Copyright infringement is not theft. It does not deprive the rightful owner of the enjoyment of his property.

That necessary clarification out of the way, the next question that entered my mind is “How does Google Translate not infringe more copyrights than Napster then?”

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: No

Okay so what if 1 billion people use Google translator to translate something to several languages? Is it broadcasting now? Can you see how goddamn silly is your argument?

Of course it ignores the point made by the article: even though it CAN BE COPYRIGHTED how are we as a society, humanity are any better by copyright locking it away? Isn’t the whole goal of copyright to promote development, improvements to the society? Please elaborate on this specific topic. If you can.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 No

1 billion individual actions are just that, individual actions.

“how are we as a society, humanity are any better by copyright locking it away? “

It’s not locked, is it? Your example is 1 billion people translating it if they so desire, to whatever local dialect they want. The work is published, and people are free to enjoy it. It’s not locked.

What is “locked”, as it were, it the ability for a third party to use and profit (in any manner) from translating it and offering it up as part of their own site. Even then, the site could have provided a direct Google translate link and been done with it, while highlighting key points on their site about what people could read in the translation – which would have added to the discussion and made us, as a people, richer with more information and perhaps another view to make us think.

The goal of copyright is to “better” society, in part by encouraging new works rather than rote replication. It grants a benefit and a form of ownership to those who create new works, and stops others from merely copying. Had the site which posted the translation instead used the space for review, opinion, or adding information to the story, we would as a people be better off and gained improvement. Just translating, in a time when technology can do that fairly well, isn’t anywhere near the benefit that additional voices, opinions, and information would be.

and on that, I shoo shoo. Have a wonderful summer Techdirt, don’t let the kool aid knock you down!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 No

That is locking it away, because it’s literally removed where no one can see it.

This is your SOPA debate all over again. “Someone could still see it, so my constant attempts to inhibit most people from seeing it don’t count!” It’s funny to watch you squirm for wiggle room on how the usage of copyright law isn’t to blame here.

Seriously, though, if you find posting here such a pain, you could just shoo shoo and never come back. No one’s forcing you. You not being here is not a punishment. Overestimating your importance is making you look like an idiot.

jilocasin (profile) says:

MIstaken intent of copyright

I think your misunderstanding stems from this sentence:

“If the intention of copyright is to better encourage the dissemination of ideas and knowledge…”

It’s not [at least not the modern version of copyright].

The current intent of copyright is:

To ensure that every imaginable use of copyrighted material results in the maximum windfall to copyright holders [authors, their heirs, and most importantly publishers] for as long as possible.

Creating and disseminating a derivative work without prior compensation [regardless of how much the public might benefit] goes against the intent of copyright and should be stopped as soon as possible.

Doesn’t the publishers actions make more sense now?

[none of the above statements should be taken as an indication that the author believes this state of affairs is in any way desirable or beneficial]

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

You, of course, leave off an important nuance. The point isn’t to maximize dissemination, no matter what. The point is to encourage dissemination on the author’s own terms. The claim that copyright is violating its purpose by recognizing the right to exclude others is childishly stupid. Those exclusive rights are the very means of promoting progress.

Wyrm (profile) says:


“The point isn’t to maximize dissemination, no matter what. The point is to encourage dissemination on the author’s own terms.”

This is mistaking the – official – purpose of copyright (dissemination of knowledge and culture) and the means (allowing the author to choose the terms of broadcasting).

The copyright is based on a constitutional right to allow a temporary monopoly on a cultural creation (means) in order to promote its creation and dissemination (purpose). The fact that it has been twisted into restraining dissemination (means) to maximize profit (purpose) is a corruption of the concept… that is sadly very difficult to reverse.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Differences With Germany

  • The Second World War (at least in Europe) was mostly a matter of cleaning up the mess left by the First World War.
  • The First World War was largely about France and Britain wanting to maintain their empires, and shut out newly-industrialized upstart Germany, which also wanted its own empire.
  • Germany was shamefully treated at the end of the First World War, with both its society and economy destroyed. Thus setting the stage for the rise of a right-wing strongman who could bring certainty to people’s lives and distract attention from everyone’s ills by blaming them on a scapegoat.
  • Anti-Jewish sentiment was widespread throughout Europe. (Some might say it still is.) And Communism was the big worry. Who cared that Hitler was massacring his own people? That was an internal matter, after all (as long as he didn’t invade other countries). At least he was keeping down the Communists.

In short, there was a large factor of guilt in the way other Europeans treated Germany. Besides which, given the chance, the Germans were actually capable of pulling themselves out of the hole they were in. Rather like the Spanish and the Irish, more recently.

Whereas Greece has been blithely taking the bailout money these last five years, without actually fixing the underlying problems with the economy. The ordinary people have received essentially none of the benefits. The country has already had €100 billion of its debt forgiven, but instead it has simply gone on to pile up more. So at some point the ones who are paying for it (mostly the Germans) have to say enough.

Yes, the ordinary people will suffer even more than they have already. If only there was a way to help them directly, bypassing both the Greek government and its banks…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Differences With Germany

Not correct. Like, almost completely wrong.

Greece has been running only a slight deficit in the last five years. In addition, of that money that was pumped in, the debt ‘relief’ consisted of passing the private debt of the Greek government on to the European taxpayer’s purses.

The current situation is a direct result of both the previous Greek administration’s incompetence and the ECB/IMF intentionally ignoring that Greece was failing to meet its projected returns to recovery, which was written about in 2010, almost immediately after the initial loan.

And the debt that has piled up is as a direct result of the massive amounts of interest due: for example, of their current deficit of €52bn, nearly €40bn of that is in interest payments to the IMF.

Another hting you are forgetting is that loans are based on risk. Those accusing Greece of becoming a ‘moral hazard’ are forgetting that the term is normally only applied to creditors who are using the loan as a club over the creditee.

This could have been resolved with a further debt-relief, combined with a much lower bond-maturation rate and a bond exchange back in 2012. But then, as now, people are choosing political convenience rather than the economically sound option.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sooo… Google Translate is a copyright infringement tool? It allows millions of foreign readers to view websites and translate the content into their local language.

I view this story as another example of copyright getting in the way of useful public services. Such as services for deaf, blind, and disabled people. Or people who don’t know every single language in the world.

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