Los Angeles, CA asked in Copyright, Business Law, Education Law and Intellectual Property for California

Q: What options are there to publish a translation of a book/material for which the author is unknown?

For example, material/manuscripts from obscure/ancient origins and unknown copyright.

Is it legally permissible to publish a translation of such works and state that the author is unknown?

1 Lawyer Answer
James L. Arrasmith
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  • Sacramento, CA
  • Licensed in California

A: Copyright Considerations: Copyright laws protect the rights of authors and creators of original works. However, if the author of a work is genuinely unknown, determining the copyright status can be challenging. Copyright protection typically lasts for a specific duration after the author's death. If the work is from ancient or obscure origins and the author's identity is unknown, it may be difficult to ascertain the copyright status.

Public Domain: If a work is in the public domain, it means that the copyright protection has expired or the work was never subject to copyright protection. Ancient or obscure works might fall into the public domain due to their age or other factors. Conducting thorough research and consulting with an attorney can help determine if the work is in the public domain.

Orphan Works: Orphan works are copyrighted works for which the authors or copyright holders are unknown or cannot be located. Different jurisdictions have varying rules and provisions for dealing with orphan works. Some countries have introduced specific legislation or guidelines to address the use and publication of orphan works, allowing limited use under certain conditions. Research the laws and regulations of your jurisdiction to understand any provisions that may apply.

Fair Use: Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows for limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder. Whether a translation of a work of unknown authorship falls under fair use depends on various factors, including the purpose and nature of the translation, the amount used, and the effect on the potential market for the original work. An attorney can evaluate the specifics of your case and advise on fair use considerations.

Attribution and Ethical Considerations: Even if the legal framework allows for the publication of works with unknown authors, it is important to consider ethical considerations. Respecting intellectual property rights and acknowledging the efforts of authors and creators is crucial. Proper attribution and acknowledgement of the unknown author's contributions, even if their identity is unknown, can help maintain ethical standards.

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