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-Spencer L. Simons, former Director, O'Quinn Law Library and Associate Professor of Law

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Outer Limits of Copyright. . .Part 3

As we have seen from the previous two entries in this series, copyright laws often have unintended, and at times down right strange, consequences. One of the oddest works that has been impacted by the copyright system is Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”). 

Written while incarcerated for attempting to overthrow the German Weimer government, Mein Kampf is part autobiography, part political statement, and part a step-by-step plan for the Nazi party takeover of Germany and the rest of Europe. The book was published in 1925 and sales were steady, although not spectacular. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, however, the book became a bestseller (it was even given to every newly married couple and every soldier fighting at the front). 

The book’s worldwide popularity increased with Hitler’s rising power, which necessitated translations from German into other languages. The first English translation, by Edgar Dugdale, was published in 1931. Interestingly, Dugdale was active in the Zionist movement. Houghton Mifflin purchased the rights in the United States in Dugdale’s translation. Soon others began publishing competing versions of the English translation of Mein Kampf, and Houghton Mifflin was forced to defend their copyright.  The first suit against small publisher, Stackpole & Sons, is notable for its holding: that a stateless person (in this case Hitler) has the same status under U.S. copyright law as any other foreigner.  Another suit involved journalist (and later U.S. Senator from California) Alan Cranston. Cranston believed that the published English translations of Mein Kampf failed to give the real flavor of Hitler’s hate. Believing that those who read Hitler’s own words, as translated by Cranston, would be motivated to do something about Hitler before he was able to put his plan into action, Cranston published his own translation of the work. Houghton Mifflin sued Cranston and won, forcing Cranston to stop publishing his tract. In other words, the copyright laws resulted in Adolf Hitler (through his U.S. publisher) suing a future U.S. Senator and winning!

During World War II, the U.S. government seized the copyright to Mein Kampf under the Trading with the Enemy Act. By 1979, the U.S. government had raked in almost $140,000 in royalties, which were distributed to charities. It was in that year that Houghton Mifflin re-purchased the copyright and again began selling the book. When Houghton Mifflin’s profits from the sale of Mein Kampf were exposed, they reassigned the profits to charity. 

Today, Mein Kamp is published throughout the world, with the notable exception of Germany (it is legal to possess the book and Germans with access to the Internet can find the book online). Bavaria currently owns the German copyright (since Bavaria was Hitler’s last permanent address), but the copyright expires in 2016, as does Germany’s ban on its publication. In an attempt to stem the tide of neo-Nazi publishers distributing copies of the book, the German government is considering producing its own annotated version of the book in an effort to “steal the thunder” of private publishers and make publication of the book a teaching opportunity. “We intend to defuse the book. That way it will lose its symbolic value and become what it really is: a piece of historical evidence—and nothing more,” says Christian Hartmann, one of the academics working on the edition to be unveiled January 1, 2016.

It is safe to say that few other books in human history have inspired as much death and destruction as Mein Kampf. The book is a vile exercise in hate, authored by a man whose name is synonymous with evil. That being said, the publication history of Mein Kampf, the modern bible of evil, is evidence that there are no exceptions to the heavy hand of copyright law.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

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