Copyright, translators, ethics, and drama

Well, one of the fires that I foresaw when the proposed ef project got out into the public has more or less fanned itself into a raging bonfire already. It’s going to only get rockier from here on out and I’m keeping my nose out of it. I had hoped I could shield the new translator from some of the worst of this, but life doesn’t listen to suggestions.

So what’s the focus of the drama and editorial today? The old and worn question about copyright. Patch or no patch. Pirate or not. Try to be as ‘white’ as possible or not. But hey, I don’t have the answers. I started this piece pondering over what my own personal answer was. I don’t think anyone’s found a good answer yet. But, you know, what drives us towards this mess anyways?

In a sentence, just about everything we do in the VN translation community is illegal. Not shades of grey, but clear, cut and dry black, thanks to copyright law and the Berne Convention, among others. I’ve never made a thorough study of the topic, but even a cursory glance tells you this much.

A patch, and all sorts of copy protections to discourage piracy for a game that will disappear out of the public eye in 5 years, of which 2-3 are spent with the project in development. It’s a hard proposition to swallow for many people, though talking about shades of black, this one feels the least dark, compared to releasing a full stand alone hacked copy like some bootlegger.

And yet despite it all the (solid or not) arguments about ‘no harm to the copyrightholder’ or ‘there’s no effective difference’ and so on, from the view of a translator, a great many of us don’t want our blood and sweat that we shed on a project mixed that the feeling of shame from encouraging illegal copyright infringement. I don’t know what translators for manga or anime feel about the issue, I didn’t just spend over 1 year of working nights to feel ashamed about it all in the end.

So why do so many of us go down this path anyway? Why are we translating?

I can’t say for other people, I’m sure there are as many reasons as people. Fame and notoriety, to practice language skills, because someone asked perhaps, the list goes on. For those people, they probably have their own answers to the copyright issue.

As for me, there’s a story that I fell in love with, and I want to share with some people. A few other translators I’ve spoken with have said they agree with that at least in part. Bouncing ideas around a bit, it occurred to me that all this time, we just want to share this good story with people we know.

Now, there’s something warm and fuzzy about sharing a good story with the masses. But deep down, we all know that for every 100 reader, or even every 500 readers, you get 1 person who says anything about it, good, bad, or otherwise. When released to people we have an existing relationship with, we get that personal connection, that “so how was it?” dialogue that often is the only thing that makes all the work worthwhile. We’re trying to share and would like to see that it was appreciated. In short, if 99, or 499 of you people disappeared, we wouldn’t know the difference.

So this naturally leads us to want to build patches or whatever for our immediate friends since they’re the primary audience that matters. At this point we’ve already broken the law, but how many immediate friends can a single person possibly have? Dunbar’s number is 150ish, so that’d be the upper bound for that sort of thing. Still a large number, but not huge. It’s certainly under the “they can’t even see you, let along care enough to go after you” barrier. I suppose this was how the grassroots fansub world grew up too.

But then, one reason or other seems to drive us into this desire to make large projects out of these things, then go out into the wild with them with great fanfare and noise. I mean, it’s one thing that a small grass roots thing leaks like a blob of death over the landscape, doesn’t justify it or anything, but now we’re shouting about it?

You know, I’m sure it’s because I’m getting older. With a job, I now have assets that are vulnerable to lawsuits. I also now have much less free time, which makes it that much more valuable. At this point, I don’t particularly care much about the notoriety. Instead, I’m more interested in trying to build something that’s lasting: a community of translators and programmers that are able to tackle VNs, a standing base of quality legally translated material that continues to grow, and one day, maybe the dream of a legally negotiated fan translation of a commercial VN.

The Narcissu projects work towards this goal, the a|together projects did too. Sadly, my own Muvluv and Gin’iro projects are dipped in black, but they’re very old projects that I’m committed to finishing them in one way or another. Moving on into the future, the path depends on how we choose to cut through the difficulties.

Ah, if only I had contact with some industry contacts to get their input about license negotiations. One rule of negotiation is that if you don’t come to the table with at least a somewhat accurate idea of what the other side’s position is, you’re bound to be disoriented, and usually leave disappointed. Just talking with the staff of the recently dissolved Hirameki, or if I could have it, the staff of VN companies to get their opinions and experiences would have been invaluable…

But that’s a whole ‘nother article for another day.


  1. haderach
    03/12/2008 01:31 PM | #

    Intersting, I completely understand the feeling when you ask to a friend (or family member) “so how was it” but doesn’t it make you feel good to know that many of the “499 people who disapeared” show your work to their friends and ask them how they liked it? Or that thanks to your work, they make their friends discover the joy of visual novels for the first time? That you are making people sit together and discuss the game? That thanks to YOUR work, people are getting together and creating links, relationships?

  2. 03/12/2008 08:17 PM | #

    Is it nice to know that people are appreciating my work “somewhere, out there”? Of course it’s nice to know.

    But there’s 2 points: first, the 499 I talk about, are the people who I don’t know exist. I see 500 downloads, it could be 1 guy with 500 machines, or some mix. Moreover, I won’t ever see, or be able to imagine what goes on out there. Since the only thing I get out of this work is a glow of personal satisfaction, that’s not really compelling (to me).

    But second, and more important, and close to the heart of this piece, is that if I’m going to stick myself into a legal deathtrap, I see no compelling reason why I should do it for people I’ll never know the very existence of. I’ll stick my neck out for the people I consider friends, people I care about. If you want to thank anyone for the existence of my work, thank them.

    If I can do something for the public that isn’t a legal deathtrap, then great, the more the merrier! But that’s another thing entirely.

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