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TM ownership still not clear?

TM ownership still not clearOur recent article on understanding translation memories and how they work once again raised the question of who owns a translation memory (TM) database.

In the translation industry, misinformation and urban myths surround the topic of TM ownership. One point of view holds that the database is a result of work contracted for and paid for by the client, so the client has a right to receive the memory files once the project is complete. The opposing view point is that without the creative work of the translator, the TM files would not exist at all.

And it's not just in theory that these questions come up. We regularly encounter this question when starting to work with new clients. In a surprising number of cases, new clients tell us that they don't have/own their old TMs.

The question is important enough that SDL stated their position on Copyright protection for Translation Memories [PDF link]. The upshot: If you care about who owns the TM, make sure you have an agreement.

Still confused? Ross Smith collected a great list of resources on intellectual property, copyright, and translation tools.

To resolve the question of TM ownership, at ForeignExchange we incorporate this in all of our agreements with clients and subcontractors. Everybody involved in medical translation - client, translation company, individual linguist - should review these resources and formulate their own policies and legal framework so that they can answer the question "who owns the TM" once and for all.

Before you go, here are some additional resources around TMs and intellectual property:

For the ins and outs of the translation business, subscribe to Medical Translation Insight via email or RSS.


  1. Giovanna Lester said...
    I am an ATA Certified Translator and abide by the terms of the Model Contract made available to members by that professional Association. Therein, item 7, sub-item b. states "b. Terminological glossary entries compiled by Translator in the course of Translator's performance of the translation service(s) under this Agreement; provided, however, that Client and Translator may agree in writing that, upon payment by Client to Translator of an agreed-upon fee, such terminological glossary entries shall be the property of Client and shall be covered by the confidentiality provisions of this paragraph."

    I have been in this profession for 31 years and see no reason why I should bother to part with my TMs. Not that I attach extra special value to them - they are my intellectual property but can be recreated by anyone with the proper software. I simply have them all together in one very large document (maybe not too clever on my part) and most of the information in that master TM refers to other projects.

    I was recently contact by a company that is an ATA member and they requested my TM, I shared the paragraph above with them and asked why they were going against ATA guidelines. Have not heard from them since... That was the first time in 31 years.

    (Via LinkedIn)
    Gabriele Berghammer said...
    clients who do not have their own translation department are likely to not worry about this question when first starting to work with a translation service provider (TSP). the question of TM ownership, then, may not come up until a particular client wants to switch TSP.

    of course, another aspect in this is: where do TSPs get _their_ TM content from? obviously, from their freelance translators. if freelance translators also were to insist that TM content is their own, we could put the whole idea of TMs to bed right there, because reuse and exchange would be impossible.

    also, with TSPs charging their clients not only for the translation proper, but also for project management - which probably includes creation and maintenance of a TM - one would think that clients have earned their right to the TM. unless, of course, the TSP's pricing tactics dictate otherwise...

    ultimately, therefore, it may be a question of how openly a TSP communicates with their clients. openness and transparency are vital, because they are the only ways to educate clients about how demanding translation is - which, after decades (or even centuries) of buying and selling translations, still is not clear to most.

    a contract is a good place to start making this clear.

    (Via LinkedIn)
    Duncan Shaw said...
    This should not be a complicated matter: The client sends source language document(s) for translation into the specified target language(s). Unless agreed to otherwise, that's what they are entitled to receive--nothing more, nothing less. Why does this question even come up as often as it does?

    Unless clearly stipulated and agreed to beforehand, the tools that we as translators choose to use to carry out the work are:

    1) Our business;
    2) Our methodologies;
    3) Our investments (time, training, cost).

    It is only the final document output in the agreed upon file format that is the intellectual property of the client, NOT the tools and means by which we choose to see this process through.

    Yes, a segment of the market contains clients who are more knowledgable and sophisticated about TM. And in those cases, of course it would be prudent to have an agreement executed in writing beforehand to avoid squabbling down the road. But this is not the case for most buyers, who simply just want their translations carried out well and on time.
    Pertti Metsänheimo said...
    When I was workin on "client side", it was always part of the contract that TMs were our property.

    Periodically, we requested and received a copy of the updated memory. When changing suppliers, the new agency got it, to help maintain consistency and (hopefully) speed.up deliveries and lower costs.

    (Via LinkedIn)
    Daniel Grasmick said...
    This is definetely a pandora box issue.
    In fact, it is quite simple:
    1. The translator owns the copyright to his translation since translation is considered as being a creative task. Not like e.g. copying phone numbers.
    2. If the LSP and/or the customer has a contract in place with the translator(s) - then they own the copyright to the translation.
    3. Who owns the TM then?
    In our opinion, neither the translator nor the LSP can "own" a TM since they cannot own the source - and a TM without the source is not of much value. So the usage of a TM has to be authorized by both the owner of the source and the owner of the translation.

    (Via LinkedIn)
    Susanne Lomander said...
    I agree that this is a real Pandora's box, and believe that translators should own the copyright to their own translations. However, many agencies require translators to sign agreements through which they cede their rights to their own translations (including TMs) to the agencies, which seems to be customary in the field.

    In response to Giovanna's comment about the ATA guidelines, it sounds as if "terminological glossary entries" refer to terminology databases (ie Multiterm terminology databases, or spreadsheets or other glossaries) and not translation memory databases (Trados Workbench TMs or similar). And that of course is a whole different issue, because if I spend time compiling my own glossaries by manually adding terms as I translate, this is not something I would part with to the client without proper and separate payment.

    Yet, the issue of the TMs still remains, and I hope that the translation industry can rise up and support the individual translators rights to their own work. In my opinion, the agencies/clients pay for the end results - the TARGET document, and not the bilingual files that contain the translators process when transforming the source phrase to the target phrase. I personally do not provide the bilingual files when I return completed assignments: if they want to recreate them, they can always align the files if they want.

    (Via LinkedIn)
    Mary Kohn said...
    From the client side, I'd like to say that if I pay you for translations, then they are contractually mine. They become the basis for my company's international brand. I expect that the TM is maintained by the LSP for future projects as I see fit. It is a very delicate topic if a translator wants to use the same translation for my competitor.
    The fact is that there are very few words to convey information in a given language, so the liklihood of using the same translation is high whether you save your TM or not. If you think about it, is it fair to charge me for a translation, save it in your TM, and charge my competitor for my 100% match? Excellent topic!

    (Via LinkedIn)
    Josh said...
    The TM IS the trasnlation-- it is simply a method for efficiently accessing previous translations. Any translation-savvy client should know that they can create TMs via alignment if the vendor refuses to send an unclean file. They should always request unclean files in the first place.

    My impression is that the client is paying to own whatever they request as a deliverable. Anything they request as a deliverable in exchange for payment is their property. This could be the final clean files, unclean files and clean files, or even a TM. It all depends on the specific agreement.

    I don't see any reason why a client would expect a TM from a vendor that includes translations for other clients and it certainly seems like that would break intellectual property laws, though I'm not lawyer.

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