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Occasionally, I watch a movie or television series on NetFlix, or elsewhere, and always I turn on the subtitles to compensate for my hard-of-hearing problem.  In this way, not only do I catch words I might have missed in the English dialogue, but also I can watch non-English-speaking movies.  Sometimes, I  go to legal movie download websites, such as Amazon Prime Instant Video or  Google Play Store, and download an MP4 video file to my Kindle Fire HDX for time-delayed viewing or offline viewing (such as on a long journey).  The Fire has a decent audio system (Dolby Digital Plus) but, again, I turn on the embedded subtitles.  They significantly enhance my viewing enjoyment and often I have wondered about the mechanics of creating subtitles.  How does it happen, who does it, what if the original language is not English, what does the law say about subtitle creation, and so on?  This last question is prompted by the fact that there are some websites offering free downloads of subtitle files in a variety of languages for a variety of movies and I wondered about the legality of this.

But, first off, who writes subtitles and how do they do it?

Large movie producers employ their own professional subtitlers who work from the original script and create a simple text file (known as a SubRip Subtitle (SRT) file; a file with a .srt file extension) containing the subtitle number, text display start and end time, and the text to be displayed.  Here’s the beginning of the SRT subtitle file for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again:

00:00:41,542 –> 00:00:43,563

00:01:18,453 –> 00:01:20,895
Thank you for the music</i>

00:01:21,915 –> 00:01:24,562
<i>The songs I’m singing</i>

00:01:25,419 –> 00:01:31,286
<i>Thanks for all the joy
they’re bringing</i>

This subtitle file has Hearing Impaired (HI) lines added – see lines 1 and 2.  The words, SOFT MUSIC PLAYING and SINGING will show up along the bottom of the screen to help severely hearing-impaired people understand the nature of the background noises. This is very important for horror movies!

There are alternatives to working from the script.  One way is to rip (copy) the audio file from a DVD or Blu-ray disc.  The subtitles may be images superimposed on the main movie frame to ensure correct placement, in which case they are converted back to text using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software and then edited to correct any conversion errors e.g. an incorrect square bracket [ is corrected to an upper case C: so, [harlie is corrected to Charlie.  Then the SRT text files are translated into other languages either manually or using an automatic translation tool such as Google Translate.

Another way is to record the audio section of the movie and use Voice Recognition Software to translate to a text file.  Then fix any text-too-long, text duration and text out-of-sync problems, all of which can be tricky to solve and require manual editing of the SRT file.

And yet another way is to play the movie within an automatic subtitle generator such as AHD Subtitle Maker, billed as an application that creates subtitles automatically without the need of scripts. It is a free comprehensive tool for subtitle editing and creation, with an extensive range of editing options and a large list of subtitle formats.

There is an army of altruistic people who use these techniques to create and make freely available other-language subtitle files for movies and television series.  They do so either because the movie comes with subtitles in only one language, usually English, or in order to enhance an original subtitle file – for example, to add colour to a dialogue to denote who’s speaking, or add HI lines, or resync the dialogue (change the start and end times of certain lines), and so on.

But, is it legal to do this?  The simple answer is if the subtitles are created without the permission of the movie copyright holder, then this is copyright infringement and therefore illegal.  The subtitles of a movie are a derivative of the movie itself and, as such, copyrighted to whoever owns the movie’s copyright.  This is true both for subtitles produced by the movie owner and for community-generated subtitle files.  And, people have been sued for doing this even though one would argue that they are providing a service that allows a lot more people to enjoy an original movie.  Here’s a case in point.

In 2017, the owner of a Swedish website called Undertexter was successfully sued by a consortium of Hollywood movie companies.  The owner of the website, Eugen Archy, allowed users to upload subtitle files onto his website and then offered them for free to anyone who needed them.  Archy was fined 217,000 Swedish kronor (around £18,400/$23,800 at today’s exchange rates), placed on probation, and his website closed down.

A similar court ruling also occurred in the Netherlands last year.   An organisation called Free Subtitles Organisation decided to challenge the Netherlands anti-piracy association’s ruling on subtitle creation, and lost.  Their website is no more; at least, I can’t find it.

Live subtitling is something else!  I watch and listen to the BBC News at 6 PM with subtitles switched on.  This is a live broadcast and the BBC employs stenographers to convert the live speech into text using special phonetic typewriters, or they make use of automatic voice recognition software (such as is used by WhatsApp’s voice input facility).  But, these techniques don’t always get it right.  Who, for example, would have thought that the Queen travels in a cabbage, or that the Norfolk coastal town of Cromer is famous for its crap?  One that I remember from a few years back was of a British female politician, famed for her austere and formidable appearance (and, later, her dancing skills), who was introduced by the interviewer as a sexpot instead of an expert.  Homophones; you’ve gotta love them!

Be that as it may.  I have to say thank you to those who create subtitle files.  Usually, there is nothing in the credits to say who they are but they have certainly made my viewing experience much better and I am now very adept at simultaneously watching the action on the screen and fast-reading the subtitles.  So, whoever and wherever you are, thanks.