Fan-made subtitles are now officially a copyright violation… and that’s despicable

subtitles, copyright

Like many of you out there, I picked up English as a second language. An avid learner, I used every opportunity available to further hone my command of the language: Playing video games, paging through foreign magazines (some of which I later found out were in German), and especially watching movies.

What made movies particularly important to this endeavor was the fact that, unlike most games and magazines, they often came with subtitles in my mother tongue. This in turn made it easier to learn English without really trying to learn.

But as a result of a non-sensical court judgement, this might no longer be a viable option for the growing generation of learners.

In a ruling that truly sums up everything wrong with the current state of affairs in copyright law, a court in Sweden has convicted the founder of fan-made subtitle website Undertexter.se for copyright infringement, TorrentFreak reports.

For those unfamiliar, Undertexter was one of the most popular subtitle portals on the Swedish internet scene for nearly a decade, with numerous recreational translators uploading subtitles day. That is until it suddenly got pulled offline in the summer of 2013.

While subtitles hosted on Undertexter were distributed for free, they were apparently often used in combination with pirated content. So facing pressure from shameless Hollywood film companies, Swedish police raided the site and seized its servers.

This was not a turn of events its founder, Eugen Archy, saw coming. In fact, he never even considered his undertaking could be regarded as illegal activity.

“The people who work on the site don’t consider their own interpretation of dialog to be something illegal, especially when we’re handing out these interpretations for free,” he said at the time.

But that’s not how the matter was seen in the eyes of the law. The Undertexter founder was arrested and later prosecuted for distributing copyright-infringing materials – an offense that could potentially land a person in prison.

But while Archy was fortunate to avoid this fate, the Attunda District Court has sentenced the founder to probation and a fine of 217,000 Swedish Kroner ($27,000) that will be withheld from advertising and donation revenues he amassed through the site.

Out of the millions of subtitles hosted on Undertexter, the prosecution leaned on a selection of 74 carefully chosen titles to build its case, according to TorrentFreak.. Most of these weren’t commercially available in Sweden at that time.

Battling this ridiculous accusation, the defense argued that, since movies are made up from video and sound, subtitles are merely supplementary. The court disagreed.

But here’s the truly detestable part of this outcome: The ruling has opened a gate that practically makes it possible to legitimately argue that fan-made subtitles can be regarded as copyright-infringing materials in other parts of the world.

This basically puts subtitle distributors in the same bracket as criminals. How long until copyright holders come after individual fansubbers? Oh, wait, they already have.

As someone who spent a considerable time of my teenage years binging on pirated content, subtitling communities had become one of the online forums I frequented the most. Yes, sometimes I would drop in to pull some subtitles and leave, but these places were so much more.

In a way, these discussion boards acted like micro-centers for learning foreign languages in a setting other than the classroom (where you would rarely hear slang and other more obscure phrases teachers wouldn’t tell you).

There were lively debates going on about proper interpretations, double-entendres lost in translation, about faithful adaptations of jargon; and this was a daily occurrence.

By the time I read my first book in English, I had devoured countless hours of subtitled text – almost exclusively acquired from such websites.

My most-coveted English textbook were the fan-made subtitles, and my favorite teachers – the diligent subtitlers. Nothing about this strikes me as criminal.

Judging by the activity on these websites back in the day, my instinct tells me this is a sentiment many others share too. But thanks to mindless rulings like this one, this could very well be a sentiment future learners might never get to experience… and that’s a damn shame.

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