kNOw Future Inc.

law, technology and cinema, washed down with wine

Polish Fansubs site Shut by Police, Participants Arrested

There I was in the kitchen this morning, brooding over the difficulties of representing peer production in film, a meditation catalysed by the last two months of researching, shootibg and editing a documentary. For the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that the value of fansub communties, producing subtitles for films not yet translated into other languages, is an excellent example easily graped by anyone. At this point I must admit to being something of a translator, not the greatest certainly, and distinctly part-time, but I’ve produced subtitles for documentaries and narrative films both professionally and as an amateur.

Checking my mail, I came upon my daily dose of bad news from the intellectual property world via a Polish Linux site: this week the police in Poland detained for questioning at last six participants in a community,, dedicated to the production of subtitles. Here some explanation for the uninitiated is required. This site did not distribute copies of films, ever, not even a single frame, and they are not accused of having done so. Nor did they sell or otherwise distribute audiovisual works. These people are amateur subtitlers who contribte their own time to translating movies into polish so that their monolingual compatriots can watch and understand them. Another word on subtitles on the net: there are two formats widely used, recognisable by the .srt and .sub suffixes, and it’s not too hard to transform one into the other. SRT are essentially just word processing files, which contain time-codes that indicate the moment when the title should appear and disappear. Immediately undernath you type the text that you wish to appear. If you want, you can actually just invent titles for a the film of you brushing your cat’s teeth on youtube (chapeau Craig Baldwin!) as an experiment.

Once upon a time one required dedicated machines to subtitle movies and these are still used. More recently it has become straightforward although time-consuming to insert title tracks onto a Final Cut Pro file. But neither of these systems opened up subtitling to the type of collective efforts one sees on the web. In the first case the capital costs of the machines have kept it a professional activity, in the second it’s just arduous. The emergence of .srt particularly has madde it easy for people to create amateur subtitles for movies, using basic movie players like Quick Time/mplayer to set the ‘in’ and ‘out’. Furthermore, once a set of titles was available, incrmental improvement was the norm, as much of the work lies on getting the synchronicity between the titles and dialogue correct, the text itself is easily corrected by later translators. Another consequence of this format is that once a subtitle file exists in one language, it facilitates the translation into other languages, as only the text need be changed. Here endeth the lesson. users are accused of unauthorised production of derivative works with a potential punishment of up to two years in jail. The absurdity of this hypothesis requires no emphasis here, so I’ll simply nod to the fact that the comparisons with the restriction of individual behaviour under stalinism are striking, and for once that does not strike me as hyperbole. What is going on in that country? My home town Dublin is full of Poles who have come there seeking work, whilst the only nes I ever hear of Poland is their government (i) calling for the return of the death sentence, (ii) endorsing homophobia, (iii) egging on the most depraved military operations of Bush/NATO and generally functioning as neo-conservative base in the EU. And then they go after fansubbers!

These raids were orchestrated by The Polish Society of the Phonographic Industry (ZPAV), a collective rights organisation, and German authorities shut the site which was hosted on servers in that jurisdiction. They are co-founders of the The Anti-Piracy Coalition, founded in 1998 by three organizations: ZPAV, FOTA (Polish branch of Motion Picture Association) and BSA (Business Software Alliance). My guess is that this investigation will be emabarassingly shelved quickly, but only after having scared people involved ina public interest activity. Comments to the slashdot story on the subject on elsehwere have also pointed out that in general forign-language movies are dubbed in polish, and all the dubbing is carrried out by the same person! So there it is: the official world offers you a hitty sub-standard product, which would make any filmmaker wince, the ‘pirates’ offer the real thing, free of self-interest, and are threatened with jail? WTF.

To complete the facts it should be noted that the police rousted the accused out of their beds at 6.00 AM in the morning, which would be the routine for a serious crime investigation. They also seized equipment and  claimed that they had found thousands of copies of pirated copies of films,  a claim which is by all accounts false, and hopefully actionable by the defendants.


May 19, 2007 - Posted by | cinema, copyright, law, p2p, social cooperation, technology


  1. […] Subtitles Site Under Investigation Searching for updates regarding the Polish police’s raids on participants in the fansub community Napisy, I came across a similar incident which took place shortly afterwards in France, but received […]

    Pingback by Another Subtitles Site Under Investigation « kNOw Future Inc. | August 8, 2007 | Reply

  2. Thanks for the post

    Comment by dodealemibHem | August 3, 2008 | Reply

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