People often ask whether it’s legal to translate video games. The answer, like most legal questions, is…it depends. There are a few things to consider when translating a game, such as copyright law and the First Sale Doctrine.
So, is translating a game legally?
It can be, but it depends on the circumstances. The translation service begins with people who do translation work. Some know Japanese, but not English; others may be fluent in both languages. With translation software, these people can translate an entire game into English or whichever language the game will be translated to.
With video games, however, there’s a wrinkle: copyright law.
Copyright law states that translation is illegal if it’s infringing on another person’s copyright. What does that mean? Well, consider the following example: a company has a bestselling book series and decides to make a game out of the books. Someone goes ahead and translates those games from one language to another without permission from the said company — they have committed copyright infringement. Now imagine this situation as applied to video games: translation services could translate a game and sell it without permission from the rights holders of that game.
In fact, translation services could buy a copy of the game from Japan and sell it in America at a cheaper price — this would reduce revenue from companies who sell these games.
In order to avoid copyright infringement, translation services must get permission from the rights holders before translating and selling any game. Although translation services can translate games without getting permission first, if they are caught by legal authorities, they may be required to pay damages for copyright infringement. To avoid such damages, translation services sometimes wait until after a game’s release date in its original language to begin translation work. However, translation services don’t always follow this rule.
Can I translate games that haven’t been released in my country?
The First Sale Doctrine allows consumers to resell copyrighted materials. This means that if you decide to sell a game translation on eBay or another online marketplace, you’re likely protected under the First Sale Doctrine — unless the translation substantially alters the original work. The translation would have to change so much that it becomes a completely different product before copyright law kicks in. However, making minor changes isn’t enough justification for infringing on copyright law.
Translation services sometimes avoid this issue by selling incomplete versions of video games with instructions on how people can finish translation themselves. This approach avoids any legal issues with selling complete translations because users then own the translation data and can do with it what they wish.
So, translation services are legal but only if they follow all applicable laws — which is why translation services tend to wait until after a game’s translation before actually selling translation data (or translation instructions). Some translation services even produce translation instructions in multiple languages so that people can buy more than one copy of the same game and transfer the translation data between them. That way, they don’t need to rely on anyone else for help.