Copyright Clash: The British Museum apologizes for plagiarizing a translator’s work

The British Museum is in hot water after a translator has accused the museum of plagiarizing her translations in its ongoing “China’s Hidden Century” exhibition.

The exhibition, which opened at the museum May 18 and goes on through Oct. 8, features the poetry of Qiu Jin, a Chinese revolutionary and writer known for spearheading women’s rights (she was once called China’s “Joan of Arc” by the New York Times). Alongside the display of the original Chinese text, however, are English translations that are suspiciously close (that is, identical) to those published by translator Yilin Wang on her personal blog in 2021.

“Um, hey @britishmuseum, it’s come to my attention that your exhibit ‘China’s hidden century’ uses my translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry, but you never contacted me for permission,” Wang wrote in a tweet on June 17. “Please note this is a copyright infringement! How are you going to fix this??”

The museum released a statement shortly after Wang’s Twitter thread gained traction — in the statement, the museum notes that it has removed all of Wang’s translation from the exhibition and will compensate the translator for the translations for the period in which they were on display.

“The British Museum takes copyright permissions seriously,” the statement reads. “Across the range of our work, we make every effort to contact the owners of rights in text, images, print, and digital media. This was a particularly complicated project and we recognize we made an inadvertent mistake and fell short of our usual standards.”

Translations hold an interesting place in copyright law — they’re generally considered derivative works, a legal term used to describe a creative work that draws heavily on and includes copyrightable components from another, original work. Typically, the translator owns the copyright to any derivative work, unless it was commissioned by the original creator. 

This is the case even for original works that are considered to be in the public domain — while the original creation may not be copyrighted, translators hold copyright ownership of any translations they create of public domain.

“This has been an incredibly and needlessly frustrating experience after experiencing copyright infringement,” Wang wrote on Twitter.

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The conference will be taking place in the stunning surroundings of the recently renovated John McIntyre Centre (JMCC). Part of the Pollock Estate, the JMCC is located in the vibrant Southside of Edinburgh and nestled on the edge of Holyrood Park. The estate offers a residential conference village environment within the city. It is easily accessible on foot or by public transport from the city centre while also boasting electric car charging points and parking.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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