In Favor of Fair Use

I’m currently reading Az ibolya (“The Violet”) by Ferenc Molnár, a play that was published in 1921. It’s a bit paranoid, but I bought a copy of the first edition, which is unquestionably in the public domain here in the United States. Eventually I plan to translate it and post excerpts here on Gentleman Translator, or maybe even the whole play, and I don’t want there to be any doubt about my right to do so.

Even so, I could easily be mistakenly accused of copyright violation. For one thing, I think Molnár’s work is still under copyright in Hungary and many other countries. Also, “The Violet” was translated in the ’20’s by Louis Rittenberg, and as far as I know Rittenberg’s translation is still in copyright, even though the original Hungarian text is in the public domain. All it takes is one dumb lawyer, who thinks he represents the copyright holder for the English-language version and not a copyright holder for a version, and I could be facing a complaint.

And, of course, if I quote judiciously from Rittenberg’s translation to compare it to my own, that’s a legitimate “fair use” of his copyrighted material. Quoting small segments of his work doesn’t impair the value of his property in any way, and I think there’s obvious value both as an educational exercise and as an act of literary criticism. If his estate challenged my use of the material in court, I’m confident they’d lose.

If I cross the line and infringe someone’s copyright, they should have legal remedies available to them. But these legal remedies should only be available if I actually cross the line. An allegation alone shouldn’t be enough to take action against me, not until it’s been proven in court and I’ve had the chance to defend myself. Under SOPA and PIPA, I wouldn’t necessarily have that opportunity before this site goes down; I don’t think it’s likely that the law would end up being applied that way to this particular site, but the principle the proponents of this legislation are trying to establish deeply disturbs me.

I sincerely hope good sense prevails.

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