The closing of this Where can I find spanish subtitles for Dragon Ball legally? question suggests that unofficial subtitles are illegal.

Is this true?

  • possible duplicate of What are the legality rules in terms of manga translations?
    – Logan M
    Jan 3, 2014 at 7:54
  • 2
    While your question is about anime and that one is about manga, the laws governing them are the same. Essentially, any unlicensed releases of any series are illegal in most countries. If you were looking for a licensed release, then that question was closed incorrectly.
    – Logan M
    Jan 3, 2014 at 7:56
  • @ Logan M : The question is not asked about the anime video. Just the translation. Plain text. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Subtitle_file_formats. Your comment suggests that you immidiately thought about an anime release where the subtitle is overlayed in the video. As far as I know, not being a lawyer; in my country, even for the actual video, only uploading (think of sharing or distributing) is illegal. We have the right to download video and music.
    – user3204
    Jan 3, 2014 at 8:10
  • 1
    "subtitles" in itself is rather vague - I'd suggest rephrasing the question to indicate, for instance, that you are talking about "fan-made subtitles". After all, it's clear that "official" subtitles can always be legally obtained.
    – Maroon
    Jan 3, 2014 at 8:39
  • @hungerartist I think that's the point. He was asking for legal subtitles but the people who closed the question automatically assumed it was fan subbed.
    – krikara
    Jan 3, 2014 at 8:51
  • @krikara: thanks for the clarification - I really wasn't sure what this question was asking for in specific (as probably indicated by my original comment)
    – Maroon
    Jan 3, 2014 at 8:53
  • 2
    If this is about closing of the said question, shouldn't this question belong to meta?
    – xjshiya
    Jan 3, 2014 at 9:15
  • I vote on moving this to Meta. Jan 3, 2014 at 11:55
  • 2
    This question isn't explicitly asking about the closure of the mentioned question, it's asking about the legality of fansubs, I would imagine it'd fall under the same veil as anime.stackexchange.com/questions/6471/…? and can stay here rather than moving it Jan 3, 2014 at 13:01
  • I'll note that regarding the closing of that question, I've made a relevant meta post: meta.anime.stackexchange.com/questions/795/…
    – Logan M
    Jan 3, 2014 at 15:08
  • @foooooooooo I don't know what country you live in. My understanding is that we're primarily concerned with complying with U.S. laws, since Stack Exchange is based in the U.S. In the U.S. and in most other Berne Convention countries, both the video and the dialogue are protected by copyright. Sure, you can legally produce a translation yourself of a work that you have the right to view. But distributing that translation, even to others who also have the right to view the same material, is illegal. Likewise, obtaining such a translation is not allowed. With that said, IANAL so I could be wrong.
    – Logan M
    Jan 3, 2014 at 15:20
  • This original question was modified from when I read it 7 hours ago. It never explicitly stated unofficial.
    – krikara
    Jan 3, 2014 at 16:03
  • @krikara It was edited. The migration doesn't send the full edit history here, just the current version. For the original see anime.stackexchange.com/questions/6711/… which does have the edit history.
    – Logan M
    Jan 4, 2014 at 3:48

2 Answers 2



Subtitles are treated much like movie scripts by most video industries, that is - either downloading user-generated or official subtitles without the copyright holder's consent is subject to intellectual property rights.

Previous Cases:

This said, there haven't been many arrests for people distributing subtitles, the main target of the companies are to prevent copies of video from being illegally distributed.

There have been a couple of arrests though, in countries such as Norway, Israel & France.

  • NorSub, a site for Norwegian subtitles had to cease operating after a court case from film distributors in the U.S.

  • Warner sues several different subtitling sites

Legal Stuff:

Most countries are signatories of the Berne Convention, Which in a nutshell, means that national copyright laws apply in international areas for that work:

Before the Berne Convention, national copyright laws usually only applied for works created within each country. So for example a work published in United Kingdom by a British national would be covered by copyright there, but could be copied and sold by anyone in France.

Some example breaches of copyright law (This instance is in the U.S.):

The maker of any copyrighted work, or the owner of that copyright, has the sole right to alter it, and others who modify a work are in violation of U.S. Code Title 17, §102 and §106. These sections guarantee the maker of the work the sole right to make alterations and additions to his work. Because adding subtitles is an alteration of the original product created by the studio, translators must seek permission from the copyright holder before adding foreign-language subtitles to a video.

USC §17-103 also grants copyright holders the sole right to produce derivative works based upon an original film. These derivative works include making-of videos, adding additional audio commentary tracks, or annotating the film. Translations, whether they're performed through dubbed audio tracks or by subtitles, are protected derivative works according to this legislation.

Videos where home users add foreign-language subtitles or close captioning to the original may be protected by personal use limitations if they are not sold or otherwise distributed beyond the household of the person who changed them. Personal use exceptions do not allow consumers to pass along "trial" copies to others for "sampling" purposes or to distribute altered copies even when they don't financially gain from the distribution of those works.


Should They Be Legal?

Rick Falkvinge, founder of Sweden’s Pirate Party has voiced his support for fan made subtitles. On his website he writes:

“Fan-subbing is a thriving culture which usually provides better-than-professional subtitles for new episodes with less than 24 hours of turnaround, whereas the providers of the original cartoon or movie can easily take six months or more.”

Some other smaller groups have spoken out about the topic also, but as of this moment downloading subtitles are illegal and will probably remain so for a good while.


Translation is considered a "derivative work" and those can only be made by the copyright owner of the original work. Rights to create derivative works can be sold/given/granted to others at the whim of the copyright owner of the original work.

Subject to the limitations prescribed hereinafter, copyright shall include the exclusive right to exploit the work by making copies of it and by making it available to the public, be it in the original or an altered manner, in translation or adaptation, in another literary or artistic form, or in another technical manner.

In general, it is illegal for anyone to do any of the things listed above (make translations) with a work created by you without your permission

A derivative work is a new, original product that includes aspects of a preexisting, already copyrighted work. Also known as a "new version," derivative works can include musical arrangements, motion pictures, art reproductions, sound recordings or translations. They can also include dramatizations and fictionalizations, such as a movie based on a play.

Only copyright owners have the exclusive right to produce derivative works based on their original, copyrighted works. Copyright on original works of authorship is automatic, and registration—while it does carry significant benefits, like the right to sue for infringement—is not required for a work to be protected; protection attaches immediately when the work is completed.

Some countries may not honor international copyright law, but most places do and the copyright on derivative works apply internationally.

You must log in to answer this question.