Writers and Their Insistence on Being in the Spotlight

On our sixth collaboration to WHAT'S NEW, we bring José Geraldo Gouvea back to talk about copyright and translators.

One of the issues you encounter when you have an internet blog is that people haven't realized that there's something called copyright. Worse yet, they can't see the difference between a multinational company violating copyright, and even bribing someone in Congress to extend the term of their rights, and a poor amateur unknown author who only seeks recognition for his job.

I had two unpleasant cases this year when my work didn't get the credit it was due. I'm still trying to fix the damages done by the first case to see if I can make up for it (the damages are actually huge for my blog's proportions) and the second case has just happened, but everything was deleted without major issues because I realized it on time.

In the first case, someone made an eBook using my translation of William Hope Hodgson's novel "The House on the Borderland," which became "A casa no limiar." They didn't add a link to the credits, a demand made by the Creative Commons license that I apply to everything in my blog. They placed my digital book in the blogosphere and in a Brazilian eBook community without mentioning me, except for a very tiny credit within the ePub book itself. In other words, I worked for over 180 hours in this translation without having any return in the form of visits to my blog (and, consequently, an income from AdSense.)

What kind of motivation would you have to work on a translation and share it with the blogging community if the very same community would rather "shoot down" your rights, instead of complying with the conditions you have set in order to assure due credit? It's as if you should never ask for any legal compensation or retribution (not even of the moral kind) for your work.

When I complained to those responsible for it, they were all offended. They said I was acting like a rock star, that they didn't want to be friends anymore, etc. Only one of them made a commitment to edit the file and add the links. Everybody else simply took the book down (at least for the time being) and kept their mouth shut about my existence.

There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of copies of this translation on eBook without the correct information on who is responsible for that work. And the credit goes to whoever created these sites to distribute the content, who didn't pay for anything and didn't put any effort into the translation. They are bloodsuckers who take advantage of the work of amateurs for their own personal gain―which shouldn't even be that big of a gain. Some of these people most certainly must be saying bad things about me, calling me a bipolar, a difficult person to handle.

And what has led to all this? It didn't even cross their minds to actually contact me to say "Hi." They never told me that they'd share my work, nor have they asked for my opinion or even brought up the need for a last round of proofreading.

Certainly, upon visiting my bog, these people felt like they were shopping. If you buy some cheese at the store, you don't call the manager to let them know that you're eating the cheese. The thing is that, whoever bought the cheese at the store actually paid for it, so they have the right to eat it without answering to anyone. Things are different when it comes to my blog: there is a clear disclaimer, repeated three times throughout each page, where I tell you that you can take my cheese for free, but you have to tell everybody where you got that cheese from in the first place.

That's a mindset that is common on the internet. People think it to be revolutionary when they shoot copyright down. It's only natural to think that there is a class of people who work for free. Just don't ask for the gardener to mow your lawn in exchange of a smile. Still, there are people who think translating a 160-page book for nothing, not even a smile, is you duty. And, when you complain about it, you're the one in the wrong, a crying baby, a prima donna.

The guy simply copied my text and formated the ePub. Yes, there's some work involved in it, because the translation was spread throughout 28 posts on my blog. Then again, he had enough opportunity to see one of the three license disclaimers displayed in each page he visited. Now, there are hundreds of people who read the translation, liked it, and didn't know I was the one who worked on it. Some of these people may have liked the book and wanted to read more from the same author, they could be curious about what other texts my blog has. This information was denied to these readers. Whoever copied my translation without authorization not only affected me, they affected readers as well.

Besides being affected in their right to satisfy their curiosity for more contents of the same source, these readers may have lost their ability to learn more about William Hope Hodgson, because now I don't find the least motivation to keep facing the hard task of bringing "The Night Land" to the Portuguese language, since the first time I tried my hand in translation didn't bring me any benefits. Since there doesn't seem to be a publisher interested in the author―who is less than a footnote in the history of U.S. literature taught in Brazil―these readers may not ever read Hodgson's masterpiece, because I'm not going to translate it. And those responsible for the plagiarizing sites won't translate it either.

The second case was even worse: an "author site" dedicated to fantastic literature published my translation of "A Night in Malnéant," a short story by Clark Ashton Smith, as "Uma noite em Malnéant." They didn't even mention me as the translator. In the first case, those who violated the license to my work at least had the decency to write my name somewhere, even though it wasn't properly highlighted. To add insult to the injury, the plagiarizing site is one of those that adds a copyright note on their own pages, even though they probably have no idea what it's about.

I'm still trying to work up the courage to start looking for other texts of mine (be them originals or translations) that may have been misappropriated without authorization and despite the license. I don't know if I should be happy about the growing interest in my work, or upset upon seeing that my efforts are being taken for granted. The quality of my work, which leads people to share it, doesn't mean anything when contrasted with the "offense" perpetrated by the site owners, who then started to boycott me as if I had demanded the moon in exchange for a kiss.

"I ended up making the mistake of not giving credit to the translator, but I believe this could have been solved without all this hoo-ha. I would have given credit if he had asked me to, or I'd taken the title down if he wanted, but... Some people just like being in the spotlight."

I'd like to emphasize that, when these people read my complaint, instead of acknowledging their mistake they think that I'm the one in the wrong, that I don't have manners, that I'm a prima donna, a complicated person. Several eBook websites decided to take down "A casa no fim do mundo" and publish it again with the modifications I had suggested. Something similar took place with "Uma noite em Malnéant," when the site owner said he would rather unpublish the book to give me credit for the translation.

People are offended when I claim my rights, but suppose I shouldn't be offended when they misappropriate my work. They behave as if writers and translators were a group of people who don't deserve to get paid for what they do. It doesn't matter how little you charge; the wicked nature of this situation is that, if you have little, they'll come and take even that from you. A friend of mine, who works very hard, once told me that it's better to charge, and charge a lot, because it's easier to turn down a small fee than a larger one. Oftentimes, nobody charges twenty cents, but the whole world will learn when you owe one hundred. So, my only "fee" is that they post a link and my name as a footnote. Even that has been denied to me.

These are the things that make me think whether it's worth it to blog about fantastic fiction. The financial return is null and my only concrete goal―visibility through my work―isn't feasible because people are sharing my work without respecting my ONLY REQUEST: add my link to it!

It's hard to explain to other people that I shouldn't be begging for them to give me credit. They came to my site and saw some content they were interested in, so they should get information on how to use that content legally and morally. When you do something against someone else's will, it's only natural that you'll get complaints about it. But that's not in the minds of these site creators. They think it's wrong for authors to try and get their place under the sun. 

Writers are funny, aren't they? They always insist on being in the spotlight.

JOSÉ GERALDO GOUVÊA was born in Brazil and graduated in History and post-graduated in Sustainable Regional Development. His background is in teaching, he's an amateur writer, and a bank professional by occupation. Fate has made him a supporter of soccer club Atlético Mineiro and his heart has made him a romantic. One of his short stories has been translated into English for Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories Vol. 1 (2011-2012).