Copyright law provides authors with a right to adapt their literary and artistic works. For example, a novelist has the exclusive ability to translate his work, to make theatrical versions, or to transform it into a motion picture.
Scholars believe this right is a modern addition to the law. The dominant historical account states that early copyright gave authors no exclusivity over adaptations. Under this regime, only the production of a near verbatim copy could infringe the author’s right. Over time, however, the scope of copyright has expanded and now permits authors to control the market for various types of adaptation. The expansion of scope has caused concern for some scholars who believe copyright is rapidly becoming too broad.
This article provides a response to that dominant historical account. It focuses on one important type of adaptation: the translation of books. It asks the question: what was the legal status of unlicensed translations in early copyright law? Using archival sources it demonstrates that copyright holders maintained more control over the market for translations than we previously appreciated. Demonstrating that early copyright holders exercised some control over translations makes copyright scholars rethink the commonly held view that copyright is consistently expanding.