Federal Court of Justice on translators’ fees/Bundesgerichtshof zu Erfolgshonoraren für Übersetzer

The German Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof) has pronounced judgment in a case relating to a literary translator’s fee. It has sent the case back for retrial, so the decision in this specific case is outstanding, but in principle it supports the plaintiff.

The BGH press release in German is available at the court site and is reprinted in the Börsenblatt. In buchreport there was an article on the background.

The translator in question translated two novels from English into German in 2001 (the German Copyright Act was changed in 2002). She was paid the fifteen euros per page customary in the business at that time. She assigned all her rights of use to the publisher – in Germany, you can’t assign copyright, but you can assign the rights of use of the copyright, which boils down to the same thing here. She therefore did not share in the profits.

The court held that in principle the plaintiff can require the publisher agree to alter her contract. At the time it was entered into, it was customary for fifteen euros per page to be paid. But the intention of the Act was that a translator should have a reasonable share in the profits made on every business use of the translation (presumably this is wider than just print media), for at that time it could not be foreseen that for the period of copyright – until seventy years after the plaintiff’s death – there would be so little profit that fifteen euros a page was a reasonable payment.

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