I'm a member of a small team of volunteers who have transcribed and translated several 17th century documents (in abbreviated Latin). The documents obviously are long out of copyright (if copyright ever applied to them) but are the property of an individual who has given their permission for the work to take place.

We obviously own the copyright in the translation, and I understand we would have no copyright in a letter-for-letter transcription, as that's pure format-shifting -- like copying a film from a VHS tape to a DVD. And of course, we have moral rights, so we can (I believe) insist on being credited for both transcription and translation.

However, the heavily abbreviated nature of the original means that we needed to put a lot of work into expanding the transcription to be complete (a 'semi-diplomatic' transcription) before we could create an accurate translation. Perhaps 10-15% of the transcription is text we have inserted (and marked as such). Another transcriber might have made different choices for conjugating and declining the Latin, and even identifying the abbreviated words. Or they might have made the same choice...

Does this affect the copyright status of the transcription? (I suspect I know, but want confirmation).

(There's no commercial value in the work, but a number of the parties involved in recruiting us to do the work are awfully confused on the subject...)

I've looked at Manuscript transcription - but am still unclear.

  • Interesting question. Some of these issues may be similar to those presented in modern editions of older music manuscripts, though I'm unaware of any of these issues having been litigated (but I'm a musician, not a lawyer). My primary purpose in posting this comment is to suggest that the answer might be different for those jurisdictions that recognize copyright protection in the "sweat of the brow," which I believe includes the UK (as this question is tagged) but not the US (which is a popular basis for copyright answers here).
    – phoog
    Oct 7, 2022 at 13:29

1 Answer 1


That's what happens when opening a (modern) book translated from its original language. There are two visible copyrights : one for the original work, to the original editor, and one for the translated version, to the local editor. Taking Harry Potter in french as an example, that's Scholastic and Gallimard respectively. I can imagine that Gallimard can't do whatever they want over the translated work, allowing a french film adaptation for example, but it does have rights over the copy of the french version : if someone posts it verbatim on the internet, Gallimard will try them without Scholastic or Rowling needing to interfere.

In your case, you don't have any of the constraints of the original editor since there is none, but I see no reason why there would be a difference on the specific rights over the translation.

This also sounds (pun intended) like the rights over an arrangement of an olde and out-of-copyright musical work. Since and if the new work is different to the former one, then the creator of the new work can copyright it, without impeding the public's ability to arrange the original work again.

  • 1
    I'm asking about the transcription; the situation is clear for the translation.
    – arkessian
    Oct 8, 2022 at 7:33
  • Oh, ok, I misunderstood then. In that case, it seems to be the same thing as for annotated classics like the Odysseus : the text you guys added is yours, and the original (untranslated) text is public domain. Plain and simple. If you publish it, you're publishing, intertwined, text that is yours and text that's public domain : both of which you have the right to print and sell. Oct 8, 2022 at 11:46
  • @arkessian how significant are the differences between transcription and translation, though? If a Latin abbreviation might be expanded in accusative or dative case, or with medieval or classical spelling, is that different from the choice a translator makes in rendering homo as "man" or "person"?
    – phoog
    Oct 8, 2022 at 14:36
  • @phoog In some cases, the expansion is obvious - a certain symbol always means a certain set of letters (e.g. there's a symbol for per). In other cases, it's less clear cut -- you've mentioned nominative versus accusative etc., but tense is also sometimes unclear, and in a few cases two Latin words with similar meanings will both fit with the few letters we had to work with. The transcription was actually far more work than the translation, because the translation fell out from the decisions we had made are the transcription phase.
    – arkessian
    Oct 9, 2022 at 8:11
  • In this case the transcription looks creative enough to be copyrightable Oct 9, 2022 at 12:47

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