Sumerian copyright--yes that's right!

Dear Miss Snark,

I haven't seen *this* one in the Snarkives yet.

I have, in my novel, a Sumerian exorcism incantation. It's lifted directly from some book I have of magical incantations & spells. (Plan B just in case writing properly polished manuscripts, query letters, and synopses fails to impress anyone ;) I lifted *only* the chant itself, figuring that maybe it wasn't copyright infringement if it didn't include any text. I mean, I could just as easily have gone to the British Museum or some place where this thing is inscribed on a plate or an old papyrus or something and copied it verbatim, right? Assuming I read ancient Sumerian, of course. Which I don't.

So...*am* I violating a copyright? I copied no other text from this book, *just* the chant. Truth is, I suck at writing exorcism rituals based on *anything* ancient...I don't want to break the law but I am kind of hoping the guy who wrote it is dead by now, or that his copyright's finally expired. ;)

Desperately Seeking Sumeria

Well you've come to the right place for writing exorcism rituals. I exorcise writing every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Oh wait, you meant something else.

If you lift the words or text in English, you've got to deal with the translator's copyright.
The actual Sumarian text is probably ok. You'll need to find a Mesopotamian copyright lawyer for a more informed opinion on that.

You'll notice that gin = to walk.
My translation is usually gin = to fall down, but never mind.


Dave said...

I would assume that Dante's Divine Comedy retains no Italian copyright in Italian, but the translation, now that's another matter. I am most familiar with John Ciardi's translation and I believe he retains the copyright to his translation.

So unless you really, really did translate the ancient Sumerian, you have to deal with the translators copyright.

Years ago when writing what could be called a white paper reivew of Heterogeneous Catalysis, we, the four authors, had to deal with copyright issues for 100 diagrams from the cited paper. We didn't die from the experience, you know.

Chaz said...

Maybe the question-er could replace some of the words in the translated text with synonyms? If it's an ancient language like Sumerian it's probably just as accurate to say "and then my small poodle stole my gin pail and fled to Mexico" instead of "and then my little poodle purloined my gin pail and ran to Mexico"

Anonymous said...

Chaz, paraphrasing without attribution is still plagiarism. Whether or not it's a copyright violation, I leave to the experts, but it's intellectually dishonest.


Anonymous said...

As a recovering archaeologist, here's my take on this --

Even producing a printable transcript of ancient texts requires a huge amount of interpretation and work and the transcript should be considered a copyrighted new work just as a drawing of old objects would be. If you're using a translation or transliteration, you are absolutely and without doubt using a new text and should give credit and get permission.

Sumerian scholars are rare birds but they will recognize your source instantly. They probably don't read much fiction but you can be sure their gleeful relatives who do will be thrilled to discover a use for Sumerian and bombard them with copies of the book and questions about whether it's a real or fake curse. So the scholar in question will definitely find out about this if your book has even a modest success.

Alternatives are to use an old transcript/transliteration/translation that's really in the public domain [and give credit in acknowledgements], do enough research to be able to generate your own curses, sketch/transcribe the symbols on some old artifact yourself, pay some starving graduate student to write curses for you, or totally fake it.

Anonymous said...

You could also find out who the translator was and try to get permission to use his/her translation. I doubt translators of Sumerian are quite as territorial and out for money as, say, rock stars, so you shouldn't have to pay an arm and a leg for the privilege.

Anonymous said...

Oh but watch out for the curse! Remember, Shakespeare added witches to Macbeth to please King James (who'd written a book on witchery). Some real witches got pissed that he used one of their incantations and put a curse on the play: Anyone saying "Macbeth" in the theater would suffer a disaster. To this day, actors performing Macbeth take great precautions because of the list of "coincidental" accidents that have occurred on Macbeth sets.

Anonymous said...

Ahem, I believe you mean "the Scottish play." :)

PerpetualBeginner said...

There may not be more than one translation, in which case this solution won't work. However, Elizabeth Bear recommends reading as many translations as you can get your hands on, and then doing your own translation, putting the gist of everything into your own words and suiting your own needs for the text. Not quite paraphrasing, and possibly a way of getting deeper into the original text meaning.

michaelgav said...

Sumerians are so smug... You'd think they invented language.

I told a Sumerian drinking buddy of mine about this post, who replied "Kima Parsi Labiruti," which means, "Treat them according to the ancient rites."

My guess is you'll be hearing from a Sumerian attorney by the end of the week.

Bernita said...

There are Sumarian dictionaries on-line.
Why not have a crack at translating it yourself?

Anonymous said...

You might try something I used in my own novel set in the medieval period. You have the original chant so just 'tweak' it a bit and put it in your own words, keeping the language style of the original Sumerian ritual. That way you won't run into copyright problems and as an added bonus it's completely yours!

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Oh, my ... well, in my secret non-pixie life, I have some experience with this cra... um stuff.

Most texts of this sort exist in translations that are now in the public domain. Check the source of the translation. There should be a footnote that reads something like 1. John Buzzardbreath, Sumarian Texts Found at Underedaweari in English Translation with Critical Notes, Oxford, 1920. If the copyright date is from an era that places the translation in the public domain, use it. If there is no footnote, do additional research until you find one in the public domain. Or, simply paraphrase it.

Dear Heart, most translations of Sumarian and other ancient texts are so stilted and overly literal that you will be able to do better. Sumarianists (is that a word?) are funny people. They can read cuneiform fluently (with a lexicon in hand) but their English grammar is often regrettable. Make it better, and make it yours.