Book Piracy, Translations and International Rights

I've always thought book piracy was a rather romantic description of a very mundane activity. A secretary standing at a copying machine all afternoon or a kid spending a late light with a flat bed scanner, those are pretty unromantic pictures. I'd rather imagine sea battles fought over my books on the Spanish Main. Oddly enough, courtroom battles over copyright infringement aren't as common as you might think, for the very reasons listed above. If some individuals want to violate copyrights, whether it involves books, music or DVD's, there's not much publishers can do about it. For the main part, publishers see casual piracy as a non-issue, and don't get excited unless the pirate becomes a distributor.

But what about wholesale piracy, when an actual publisher somewhere reproduces a book, even a translation, without permission? I recently found out the answer to that one when a publisher in Iran produced a Farsi version of a book I authored for McGraw-Hill without permission. I actually took it as a compliment when I stumbled across the book being offered for sale on the Internet, and I contacted McGraw-Hill because I wanted to see if they would get me a copy, which they sometimes do with legal translations. After a few months, I finally got the following response (excerpt) from their International Rights people:

"We tried to contact the publisher XXXXX with no success, unfortunately. In a case like this, there is not much we can do to control the sale of a pirated edition. Had there been another Farsi translation on the market for this title (by another publisher), we could have asked the other publisher to look into it and contact XXXXX. Unfortunately, without a local presence to intervene, we don't have that leverage in this case. "

The interesting point in here is that there's no financial incentive for anybody to pursue the publisher of the pirated edition because there's no competing version available. If a local publisher in Iran had purchased the rights, it would have been in their interest to pursue the issue to protect their investment. From my perspective, I wish that the publisher had contacted McGraw-Hill and purchased the legal rights for two reasons. First, I might have gotten a copy of the finished book for my shelf. That's worth more to me than the $100 or $200 I might have gotten for my 50% of an international rights sale. Second, the book in question contained some 250 black and white photographs. Scanning the photos from a printed book will produce pretty miserable results unless they have a tremendous Photoshop operator.

I can't get too excited about this type of book piracy for translations, especially since they left my name on the cover. That's the odd thing about the whole affair to me, that they didn't simply plagiarize the work and publish it under somebody else's name. Wholesale book plagiarism in translation has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands of years (think scrolls), and will usually go undetected. Owning the international rights to a work is one thing, being able to enforce those rights is another. I even suspect that selling the foreign rights to a book might actually create more risk in the long run than turning a blind eye, especially for small publishers.

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