Copyright Laws For Adding Subtitles To Movies

In most cases, it’s illegal to add subtitles to movies made by others.

The general rule of copyright law, whether you’re dealing with images, sounds, printed words or films, is that it’s illegal to copy, alter or redistribute another’s copyrighted work without his permission. Although small pieces of work may be copied or altered without permission, and United States copyright law permits personal-use copies, changing a film by inserting subtitles into it is, technically, a violation of several points of copyright law.

Altered Works

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.

Derivative Works

In addition to the protection that prevents unauthorized alterations to copyrighted work, 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. Derivative materials that present the original work as part of a new, self-contained piece may be deemed acceptable by copyright law if substantially new material is added to change the context of the original piece, though this exception doesn’t apply to the addition of subtitles.

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Personal Use

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.


In the worst-case scenario, such as users who are commercially distributing subtitled videos without the permission of the copyright holder, the copyright violator may face fines as large as $150,000 per violation.