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I'm in the process of translating a book (scientific publication) for private use. If I ever decide to publish it, what is the procedure - who is the right person to ask for publishing rights and translation approval?

Update (previously posted as a comment):

Two of three authors are deceased, and I still need to find out what is the situation with the third one. I'm translating from a Russian translation of the book (due to the unavailability of the original).

If all three authors show up to be deceased - should I contact the original publisher(s) (since it was a joint publication by two companies) or the publisher of the version I'm translating (since one (the Poles) are holding the general, and the other (the Russians) are holding the Russian translation rights)?

Furthermore, the Russian publisher went out of business (Mir Moscow).

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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

You'll need to contact the original author and/or their publisher. Either one will direct you to the correct person to deal with - there's no blanket rule over who has which rights, so you'll need to check who's got translation rights in your specific case, and whether that person is willing to let you translate the material "officially."

Your case is even harder, since it sounds like you're running out of related people you can contact. The piece may well be an orphan work, and as far as I can see, there is no legal way to use such a work. So the bottom line is: you'll need to search out whatever connection you possibly can. Approach every angle that presents itself. Once you make contact with somebody, you'll (hopefully) have an easier time finding the person you're ultimately looking for.

If you do make contact, be sure to be clear on what type of publication you're aiming for - publishing freely on the web is very different than print publishing for profit; you might be able to get permission for one but not the other.

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Thank you once again. I'll keep you informed via this question on the issue and my actions - just in case someone else gets in a similar situation, for future reference. –  Lost in Translation Jul 25 '12 at 9:55
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Since the book you are translating was not written in the United States, it would be subject to the terms of the Berne Convention, which essentially is an International treaty concerning copyrights. In the simplest of terms, the countries that have signed this treaty basically agree that a copyright is intact until 70 years after the death of the original author.

If you are working from a translation from the original, then a copyright would be enforced until 70 years after the death of the translator, and not the original author. In the case of works published by more than one author, the 70 years is measured from the death of the last surviving author. Therefore, if one of your authors is still alive, then his work will still be protected under copyright until 70 years after he dies.

Also, copyrights are considered transferrable property, so any surviving family members of the original author would most likely now hold that copyright. In this case, if you are able to translate from the original source, you could possibly get permission from whoever holds the original copyright. If the original author has been dead for more than 70 years and you are translating from the original work, then you are working with a book that is now in the public domain, so you wouldn't need any permission from anyone.

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Well, one author was alive in 2007, so I can't hope for the public domain option. I emailed the original publisher with all the details, and the person in charge promised to inform me on the terms as soon as he finds the documents relevant to this particular edition in the archive. –  Lost in Translation Jul 25 '12 at 17:13
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