Saturday, June 26, 2021

Could it be illegal to adopt, edit or delete sentences in Tatoeba?

Original Wall post:

Recently, there has been a discussion around copyright in which there were claims that adopting, editing and even deleting sentences in Tatoeba could lead to some sort of copyright infringement. I would like to address these claims because, obviously, we should strive to not do anything that is against the law, and I think everyone deserves to have a good enough understanding of this topic to make their own decision on what they should do.

For the record, the discussion happened on an orphan sentence (#190202). The sentence was considered unnatural, was adopted, then edited into a more natural sentence. This is a routine corpus maintenance task that has been performed many times in the past without any complaints, but this time, it has been argued that this is not compliant with international copyright laws. There was also a suggestion to delete the sentence, but here as well, it was argued that deleting would be unlawful.

Why? Because all of this is violating the moral rights of the original author.

Let's go through each claim more in details.

(1) Adopting a sentence

It was argued that adopting a sentence is similar to claiming that you are the original author. After all, when you adopt a sentence, the sentence is said to "belong to" you and you are said to be its "owner". This would be a violation of the right of paternity (one of the moral rights). Because of this, it was suggested that we suspend the adoption feature.

Now it is important to note that what I just described is only an *interpretation* of the adoption feature. And as far as I know, the law does not care as much about interpretations as it cares about the *intent*.

If you adopt a sentence for the purpose of claiming that you are its original author when you are not, then there is an intent and that is clearly wrong. If you adopt a sentence because you want to protect it from being edited by others within Tatoeba, or because you want to fix a typo in it, then you are just taking advantage of the features that Tatoeba offers. There's no intent to steal away the credits from the original author.

Similarly, there was never any intent from Tatoeba to transfer moral rights to whoever becomes the new "owner" of a sentence. These rights are anyway not transferable so it would have been a vain attempt. The concept of ownership and adoption have been introduced at the beginning of what I would call the "version 2" of Tatoeba (cf. In the context of Tatoeba, the word "owner" has been used to designate who is the user responsible for the sentence within Tatoeba. It was intended to refer to an internal mechanism. It was never intended to designate the owner in any sort of legal aspect.

Of course, just because we do something that can be misinterpreted doesn't make us immune to consequences. We can do bad things with the best intentions in the world, it's still going to be bad.

In our case, there was possibly a bad choice of word. And if we want to steer away from misinterpretations, we could think of using another word, like "maintainer" instead of "owner". Sentences would no longer "belong to" a certain user, but would be "maintained by" a certain user.

Ideally though, I think we should implement a feature to standardize the way we do attribution. Because at the moment, it is not very straightforward. Attribution is done with tags, with comments, sometimes even with the profile description. If we had a standard way to indicate the source and original author of a sentence, then it would become much less ambiguous that what we call "owner" is not the original author. In some cases of course the owner will also be the original author, but in some cases not.

I honestly don't know when that could be done, but in the meantime, I would say there's no need to suspend the adoption feature. It's a fairly important mechanism in our system and removing it is just not worth the trouble. Yes, it can cause confusion, but that just means we have to spend some time clarifying what we mean by "owner" and the problem should be solved.

(2) Editing a sentence

It was argued that editing a sentence and applying significant modifications to it violates the right of integrity (another moral right), and therefore, Tatoeba members should not be allowed to edit other people's sentences, except for minor corrections. For significant modifications, the contributor should be creating a new sentence and leave the current sentence untouched.

I feel there is here a misconception of what Tatoeba is or what Tatoeba does.

If Tatoeba had a contract with authors to act as a publisher of their sentences, then yes, I can see how that would be a violation of the right of integrity to let others freely edit the sentences. But Tatoeba is not the publisher of anyone's work. It is only the publisher of its own corpus.

The act of editing sentence is just a shortcut for managing the content of the corpus. Instead of doing something that would take two steps (delete + add), it is done in one step (just edit).

Taking this shortcut can have consequences on a functional level. Perhaps the new version of the sentence doesn't fit anymore with the translations that are linked to it. Perhaps the initial sentence was part of a certain list and the new sentence would not be relevant in that list. Perhaps the sentence had some tags which become obsolete with the modification of the sentence. So it is not always appropriate to take this shortcut. But it is allowed and there should be no legal consequences.

As said, "editing" is essentially "deleting + adding". There is no law makes it illegal to add a sentence in Tatoeba, as long as the sentence can be reused into a work that is published under CC BY. And there is no law that makes it illegal to delete a sentence from Tatoeba. This brings us to the last point...

(3) Deleting a sentence

It was argued that deleting a sentence is violating the right of withdrawal (yet another moral right), and therefore, every sentence should be kept unless the author explicitly asks for it to be deleted.

That is an incorrect understanding of the right of withdrawal. The right of withdrawal means that if you have published some work, you have the right to ask for your work to be unpublished and it should be unpublished upon your request. It does not mean that whoever published your work is forced to keep your work published until you said otherwise.

Just like editing, deleting a sentence also has consequences. It can create an inconvenience for anyone who used that sentence for something. Perhaps someone added the sentence to a list, and it's suddenly no longer there, making their list incomplete. Or perhaps someone is developing an application that used the sentence, but the next time they decide to update their version of the corpus, the sentence is not there anymore, and it causes a bug in their application. But this is more of a user experience issue. It is certainly not a legal issue.

Conclusion: adopting, editing and deleting sentences in Tatoeba does not violate moral rights. The features of Tatoeba are definitely not perfect and could be redesigned to better integrate with the laws, but they are not breaking the laws.

That being said, I'm not a lawyer, this is only my personal point of view.

What I can say however is that generally speaking, we try our best to provide an environment that is as legally safe as possible for as many people as possible to participate. As this case brings up international laws, it highlights that we should take into account the strictest laws that we know of, and provided that these laws are aligned with our ethics, we should use them as a baseline.

Of course, it is not possible for us to know all the laws of all the nations in the world, nor is it possible to comply every time. In some cases, we may deliberately choose to not comply, especially true if the risk is negligible for Tatoeba and becoming compliant would require to have a team of full time engineers and lawyers working on it for months. We unfortunately don't have such resources, quite the contrary. In such cases, I think it is understandable that we must leave the responsibility to each user to make sure to adapt their usage of Tatoeba accordingly.

This was a bit long but I hope I could help some people get a better understanding on this topic. And of course, if you disagree with something I said or if you have any information that can help improve the legal safety of Tatoeba, you are very much encouraged to share your thoughts and knowledge.

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