That Time Hitler Used Copyright Law To Block Future Senator Alan Cranston From Publishing Mein Kampf
from the wtf dept
We’ve written in the past about the somewhat bizarre copyright history of Adolf Hitler’s infamous book Mein Kampf. The copyright is currently held by the state of Bavaria (which got it from the US government after the US seized the Nazis’ publishing house at the end of World War II). Bavaria has used the copyright to bar the publication of the book in Germany for decades. However, in the past few months, extra attention has been paid to it because the copyright is set to expire at the end of the year, putting the book into the public domain in Germany.
But, apparently, that’s not even the most interesting story about copyright and Hitler. David Post has a fascinating post about copyright as censorship, which starts out about the Katz v. Chevaldina case that we’ve written about in the past. It involved Ranaan Katz, the partial owner of the Miami Heat, who was upset about comments a blogger, Irina Chevaldina, was making about him on her blog. Katz went so far as to acquire the copyright on an “unflattering photo” that Chevaldina had used in a blog post mocking him and then sued Chevaldina (and Google, which hosted the blog on its Blogger platform, but was eventually dropped from the suit) for infringement. This was after Katz had tried and failed to sue Chevaldina for defamation. So, instead, he decided to use copyright law to censor her. It was a perfect example of what Matthew Schruers has shrewdly called copyright “immigration,” where people who can’t censor people through other laws turn to copyright as a last resort.
The amazing thing was that it actually worked at first. The court sided with Katz and issued a ridiculously broad injunction, raising questions about copyright misuse and (of course) the First Amendment. Eventually, though, the court got it right, noting that the use of the photo was clearly fair use. Katz, not getting the message, appealed his SLAPP suit, and it’s now before the 11th Circuit, which will hopefully make quick work of it. If you want to read more about that, I highly recommend the EFF’s amicus brief and its related blog post.
So… what the hell does all of that have to do with Hitler?
Well, in that article by David Post, he points out that there’s actually a fairly long history of people using copyright for censorship — and it turns out that none other than Adolf Hitler apparently liked to use copyright this way (yes, this post is pre-Godwin’d — deal with it). And, to make this even stranger, apparently Hitler used that copyright-as-censorship/copyright immigration plan against then-news reporter/future Senator Alan Cranston. Cranston himself explained what happened in an interview:
While I was doing my foreign correspondence work, I read Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the book he wrote while he was in prison before he became the dictator, outlining his plans for Germany and the terrible things he intended to do in the world. There was no English language version of it. When I quit journalism and came back to try to get involved in activities in the United States, one day in Macy’s bookstore in New York I saw a display of Mein Kampf, an English language version, which I’d never seen before, which hadn’t existed. I went over to look at it out of curiosity and as I picked it up, I knew it wasn’t the real book. It was much thinner than the long book that I had read, which is about 350,000 words. So I bought it to see how come. And delving into it I found that it was a condensed version, and some of the things that would most upset Americans just weren’t there as they were in the version I had read, the original, in German.
So I talked to an editor friend of mine in New York, a Hearst editor named Amster Spiro, and suggested that I write and we publish an anti-Nazi version of Mein Kampf that would be the real book and would awaken Americans to the peril Hitler posed for us and the rest of the world. So we did that. I spent eight days [compiling] my version of Mein Kampf from the English language version that I now had, the original German language version, and another copy that had just appeared. A book was then selling for around three dollars normal price. Hitler was getting forty cents royalty for each copy that somebody bought that wasn’t [even] the real thing. We proceeded to print in tabloid the version that I wrote, with a very lurid red cover showing Hitler carving up the world, and we sold it for ten cents on newsstands. It created quite a stir. Some Nazis went around knocking down newsstands that displayed it in St. Louis and the German part of New York and elsewhere in the country. We sold half a million copies in ten days and were immediately sued by Hitler’s agents on the grounds we had violated his copyright, which we had done. We had the theory that [though] he had copyrighted Mein Kampf in Austria, he had destroyed Austria with his army, so we said he destroyed his copyright at the same time. Well, that didn’t stand up in court, and a Connecticut judge ruled in Hitler’s favor. No damages were assessed, but we had to stop selling the book. We got what was called an injunction. But we did wake up a lot of Americans to the Nazi threat.
If you’re interested, the case is Houghton Mifflin v. Stackpole Sons, and it’s an interesting read. The issues are certainly a bit different, but it does show that Hitler and his publishers looked to actively prevent Americans from knowing the full extent of his views… using copyright law. As Post notes:
It was not copyright law?s finest hour ? its Korematsu, one is tempted to say. Hitler gets to continue to receive royalties, and to control publication of his book, 10 weeks before he marches into Poland and war breaks out in Europe. The defendant doesn?t seem to have raised ?fair use? as a defense in the case, relying instead entirely on a theory that because Adolf Hitler was a ?stateless person?, any assignment of his copyright rights was invalid….
It?s hard to know whether there?s something noble about a US federal court going through the arcana of international copyright jurisprudence in order to give Hitler ? even Hitler! ? his day in court, or appalling that it would allow copyright law to be mis-used in a matter of such crucial public importance.
So, now, next time you feel like Godwin’ing any conversation on copyright-as-censorship, feel free to just declare “that’s like something the Nazis would do!” and point to this story.