Writers: a copyright question

Dear freelance writers of QT3,

I am translating a piece of literature into English, and I was considering sending it off to some publishers. The work I’m translating was written in 1914 or thereabouts. What are the copyright rules – how many years need to go by before I can use the work without asking for permission from the publisher? I’ve also got my eye on some 1946 work.


Anything written before 1923 has no copyright. The 1946 may or may not be possible, depending on whether it was renewed at a certain point.


This question depends on the nationality of the author, and whether than nation is a signatory to the Berne convention.

If so, for new works the copyright is a minimum of 50 years after the author’s death. Many signatory countries have stronger protections than this, which must be recognized by all other signatory countries. Works created today by EU authors, for example, are protected for 70 years after the author’s death.

The short version of the Berne convention is that if the work is still protected by copyright in its host country, it is protected by copyright in all the other countries. You have to look up the copyright law for the country in question.

This is correct for works created by American authors.

Thanks for the replies.

For some of the earlier works I’ve translated, the date of creation is 1911, and I’ve seen conflicting evidence about their copyright – an internet source lists the (book) publishing date as 1969 with a Soviet publisher; meanwhile, a book of translations of the same work (mine is better), which came out in 2000, merely has a note on the back of the title page, with all the copyrights, saying the original texts are copyright 2000 (same year) to what I can only assume is a descendant of the author.

So – I’m confused. Can I submit my translations and site the original text as “copyright Original Author’s Descendant, 2007” or is there more I need to do? Do I actually need to contact the original publishing house (which may or may not exist anymore) before submitting my translation for publication? Or does the publisher take care of that if they find they want to publish my work?

All Russian or Soviet works from the RSFSR published in 1943 or later, as well as works of authors who died in 1943 or later, became copyrighted in Russia in 1993.

There was then another change in the law in 2004 to extend copyrights to 70 years after an authors death, and to extend all current copyrights by 20 years.

So, what you need to do is find out what year this author died. If he died before 1954, the copyright on his works would have expired in 2003 at the latest. All his works are now in the public domain and you can do whatever you want with the original text. Translate it, republish it, whatever.

But if the author died after 1954, all his works are copyrighted for 70 years after the date of his death.

Books can be published after their copyright has expired by whomever they want. For example, Frankenstein was originally written around 1818 or so, but my Bantam Books copy of it was published (and copyright) 1981. Aside from things like the cover art, introduction, and other add-ons, it’s not clear to me what exactly Bantam copyrighted; but they did. It probably has to do with their packagin/expression of the whole.

Translations are different. For instance, I have some books written by Kierkegaard in the 1800s (clearly outside of copyright). But my copies were translated into English and published in 1983, so that is the copyright date of this translation. Translations are considered a new expression of the original author’s ideas, and so are new works with their own independent copyrights. If I were to publish my own translation (or reprint in his original Danish) of his original works, I could; I could not, however, publish a copy of the 1983 translation.