How do you say “copyright” in Zulu?

Woman reading Zulu newspaper

South African woman reading a newspaper in Zulu

Are the costs and benefits of copyright protection roughly the same in English and in Zulu? Or is copyright law’s impact radically different from one language to another?

Copyright protection gives authors the exclusive right to market their works. This has the benefit of channeling profits back to authors, enhancing the financial incentives to create new works. But it also has the cost of limiting competition, inflating prices for consumers, and restricting public access to existing works.

Copyright scholars have extensively debated these costs and benefits. But we have not yet done much thinking about how the cost-benefit calculus might play out for different languages.

That project lies at the heart of my current work-in-progress, which advocates targeted copyright reforms to promote publishing in lesser-spoken languages.

From an economic perspective, the publishing market is fundamentally different from one language to another. English books can be marketed to an enormous and wealthy global audience. The audience for Zulu works, however, is 1% as large and has significantly less disposable income.

Scholars continue to debate the relative effectiveness of financial versus nonfinancial incentives for authorship. But there is no doubt that the incentives are powerfully present for English-language works. That does not appear to be true for works in Zulu.

According to recent data, 77% of books sold within South Africa are in English, though only one in ten South Africans speaks English at home. The vast majority of South Africans speak African languages such as Zulu. Yet books in all African languages combined account for only 11% of the South African publishing market. Of African language book sales, 89% are textbooks, subsidized by government purchasing.

The copyright system that has so effectively incentivized the production and distribution of works in English has not produced equivalent benefits in Zulu. The costs of copyright protection – including higher prices and barriers to translation – are also particularly burdensome for the Zulu-speaking community.

In theory, the costs of copyright protection may outweigh the benefits in many linguistic communities characterized by small size and low wealth. I’m working now on some case studies to see whether facts on the ground support that prediction.

If so, my suggestion is not to change copyright law generally, but to adjust the rules for certain languages. There are thousands of different linguistic communities in the world, each as unique as the various expressive works that copyright law protects. A one-size-fits-all regime is unlikely to be ideal.

Reforms to strike the right balance could be implemented at the level of national policy making. By treating different languages differently, countries may be able to improve publishing in languages such as Zulu without prejudicing the interests of authors and publishers in the dominant markets.

In a series of posts during my month as a Co-Op guest blogger, I’ll explore how we might structure such reforms and other issues raised by this project.

You may also like...

6 Responses

  1. Joey Fishkin says:

    Fascinating stuff, Lea.

    I’m curious what you mean by treating different languages differently. It seems to me (as someone with dangerously little knowledge of this field) that if somebody publishes a book in one language, they currently have some rights regarding translations and other derivative works regardless of language or medium. Is the idea to introduce distinctions there, so that the baseline of rights will look different regarding the French translation vs. the Zulu translation of an English book? Or is your proposal more to do with original, non-derivative works written in Zulu?

    Anyway, look forward to these posts.

  2. Lea Shaver says:

    Yes, that’s exactly the idea.

    Currently under either South African or US copyright law, you can’t translate a work without the copyright owner’s permission. Interestingly, that wasn’t always the case.

    In the nineteenth century it was considered legitimate in many countries to translate a work without authorization. European publishers lobbied to secure the “translation right” through international treaties around the turn of the twentieth century.

    Policy makers in India objected at the time that this would greatly impede their ability to make books available in Indian languages. But the British Empire signed off on the treaty effort over its colony’s objections.

    To me that outcome was tragic because a win-win compromise was available, but India lacked the bargaining power to push for it. All the European publishers really cared about were translation rights in the profitable markets.

    So yes, this is about liberalizing the rules to make it easier to produce translations in languages with under-served publishing markets. But it’s also about more than that…

    In my mind, the translation of existing works into Zulu is merely a good start. I view translation as a means to the broader end of encouraging a larger Zulu readership and a vibrant market that creates opportunities for authorship of original works in Zulu.

    Translations are the low-hanging fruit, an easy way to prime the pump and establish new publishing markets. But the end goal is the flourishing of a Zulu language literature that includes plenty of works – both translated and original.

  3. Matt says:

    I’d be curious to know how much of the problem is from copyright as such, as opposed to the general expense of translation. I’d guess that the potential profits from books in Zulu isn’t extremely great. Is there much of a market for books in the public domain to be translated? If not, that might indicate that the problem is that there’s not a lot of money to be made there, after the costs of translation is included. Or is it, you think, that publishers (and perhaps authors) want unreasonably high payments for the translation rights? If that’s so, would it make sense to just show what the potential market is, and show that it’s better to get some small profit from the Zulu market than no profit at all?

  4. Lea Shaver says:

    Great question, Matt! I decided to dedicate a whole post to it:

  5. Lea Shaver says:

    Ah, I didn’t address your last question: Do copyright holders demand unreasonably high payments? But Buccafusco & Sprigman did a great experiment, which I think suggests unreasonable demands are likely to be a problem.

    You can read about it here:

  6. Lea Shaver says:

    An update… my article is now available at SSRN, and forthcoming from the Washington University Law Review: